The Dumbing Down of Bestsellers

You may not be aware of it, but there’s a measuring tool called the Flesch-Kindcaid Readability test that determines the education level needed to understand the text of books. Surprisingly, most writers typically write at the 6th grade level. That’s because modern readers spend less time reading and more time scanning than ever before. One study suggests that most readers read only about 20% of the words on any given page. Simpler sentences and vocabulary are more likely to be absorbed and understood. In fact, the average American reads at between the 8th and 9th grade level, with most people preferring to read two grades below their actual ability. Speed seems to be what matters. People want to consume information as quickly as possible, a task made possible by easy-to-read words and simple sentences. Intelligence has nothing to do with simplicity — it’s about pace and efficiency. Even the smartest people want to gather information quickly. Not only is writing getting simpler, it’s getting dumber, and the statistics prove that. Every New York Times bestseller from 1960 to 2014 falls in the 7th grade level spread, and in the last 60 years, a scant 25 bestsellers have scored higher than 9th grade level. In fact, since 2000, only 2 bestsellers have scored higher than 9th grade readability. Now for the mind-blower……..8 books tie for the lowest score — just above 4th grade level — and they were written by prolific, well-known authors with huge sales: James Patterson, Janet Evonvich, and Nora Roberts. The bottom line in writing bestsellers today is this: brevity over beauty and information over emotion. Somewhere out there are future bestselling writers who are able to craft 100-word sentences, detailed description, and layers of meaning wrapped in language, but for now, know this: simplicity sells.