A few years ago an intern did a study of the writing that showed up in our newspaper. He ran our stories through a computer program that measured the reading level you would need to understand each piece. It turned out that my stories were written at a fifth-grade level. If I remember right, I was the simplest writer in the newsroom.
I caught some grief about that. But I was proud.
It can be harder to write a short story than a long one, and it can be much harder to write with simple words than with complicated ones. Most every good writer knows words that soar on silver wings. But sometimes those words fly off into the clouds and the reader loses track of the story. I like words that work for a living.
This goes straight back to my mom and dad. They grew up in sharecropping families a few miles apart in south Georgia. They picked cotton from the time they could walk. My dad had to quit school in the sixth grade, and my mom in the fourth, because they had to work. But by then they had learned to read and they never quit. My dad, when he was alive, read the Bible after supper. My mom, to this day, reads Harlequin romance novels. She buys them by the sackful at the used book store.
At our house the newspaper was a Christmas present six times a week. It was an afternoon paper, and it came about 4:30. We would listen for the thump in the front yard. I’d run out and get it, strip off the green rubber band – we saved them in a drawer – and we would split up the sections. The Brunswick News was as gray as fireplace ashes. It was all wire copy except for high-school sports, the police blotter, a piece or two on local politics, whose kids got married or made Eagle Scout, and the obits. We read every word.
What my mom and dad listened to was country music. Johnny Cash: Love is a burnin’ thing, and it makes a fiery ring. Hank Williams: Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly. The songs played with images in the same way a poet does. The words could tear you up, they were so powerful. But they were still simple and easy to understand.
When I started out writing for a living, I wanted to show off. I wrote stories that flashed back and flashed forward and might have flashed sideways. I wrote sentences that twirled like an Olympic figure skater. Sometimes I still do those things if I’m tired, or if I’m trying to write around a lack of reporting, or if I get the big head and start to believe that the world does not have the proper appreciation for my prose.
But one thing I learned from my mom and dad is that people can understand almost anything if you explain it in a simple and clear way. My mom doesn’t know a thing about nuclear physics. But if you sat down with her and explained in simple language what a supercollider does, and why, she would get it.
Our paper, like most, has a lot of readers who aren’t well-educated or well-read. That doesn’t mean they’re not smart. Writing in plain language is not dumbing down your story. It’s creating a map that all your readers can navigate. If your story is in plain language, feel free to let fly with complex ideas and literary devices. Your readers can handle it.
One of my favorite books is the 2001 novel Jim the Boy by Tony Earley. I don’t know to this day if Earley meant the book for kids or adults. It doesn’t matter. He tells the story of a boy growing up in 1930s North Carolina, and he writes it in language just about anybody could understand. It is full of images that work deep down inside you and stay. Here is Jim’s mother, a widow:
Although she was not yet thirty years old, she wore a long, black skirt that had belonged to her mother. The skirt did not make her seem older, but rather made the people in the room around her feel odd, as if they had wandered into an old photograph, and did not know how to behave. On the days Mama wore her mother’s long clothes, Jim didn’t let the screen door slam.
The thing about writing a sentence a fifth-grader can read is that maybe a fifth-grader will read it. Or maybe somebody with a fifth-grade education will. And if that person understands what you’re saying – provided you have something to say – your sentence has made the world better. You have helped another human being make sense of things. That’s what a writer is supposed to do.
Tommy Tomlinson spent more than 15 years as a local columnist at the Charlotte Observer. A 2005 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary, he believes he is the only journalist in history to have covered the Super Bowl, the Bassmaster Classic and the National Spelling Bee in the same year. This essay first appeared in an October 2009 edition of Storyboard, when Tomlinson was still with the Observer.