Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dumbing it Down

Being my fourth submission to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group

One of the many challenges I face as a museum writer is achieving a certain "grade level" in my writing. As a form of self-selected edutainment *gag*, museum exhibits must strive to enlighten and accurately inform the visitor while simultaneously presenting a topic in an accessible manner (i.e. don't scare people with big words) I understand and support this approach of informing without lecturing. I am a huge fan of really smart people, like Richard Feynman and Mary Roach, who excel at presenting complex topics in an engaging manner.

However, I find the notion of a target grade level difficult to swallow and even more difficult to hit without dumbing down an exhibit's content to the point of non-existence. At the moment, I am struggling with an exhibit on space exploration, which is a complex subject full of jargon and big words. Today, my sub-topic of the moment was cosmic radiation (best pronounced "Cooooooooosmic Radiatioooooooon!") which is an even more complex and jargon-filled subset of the whole. As such, it has taken me two days worth of research to spit out 200 words on the matter. When I felt moderately satisfied with my draft--meaning it no longer made my eyes bleed--I decided to check the grade level of my writing in Word's handy-dandy Flesch-Kincaid readability checker. It came back as grade level 14+. Apparently a museum visitor would need at least an associates degree in reading to understand my 200 words.

Moderately irked by what I found to be an erroneous reading, I decided to check individual sentences within the text. Each came back with a ridiculously high outcome. Finally, I checked the first sentence of the panel, which was also one of the shortest.

"Radiation is energy that travels as either particles or waves." 

According to Microsoft's brilliant readability standards, the above ten word sentence represents a grade level of 10.7. Really!?

I then decided to look up who these Fleschy Kincaidians were in hopes of finding out that the metric was some long-debunked crackpot theory. Much to my dismay, I found that the F-K system is pretty dang standard, having been developed for the U.S. Navy. There are apparently laws based on this shit intended to keep insurance companies from swindling poor, plain-spoken, main street Amerkins!

Are we really that dumb? Do other countries have similarly low standards!? Do you really need a high school diploma to understand this sentence!?
"The Australian platypus is seemingly a hybrid of a mammal and reptilian creature."
Incidentally, this post is written at an 11th grade level, and so should be easily understood by someone who is not a complete moran.


  1. Fun fact: That protester pic is from a counter-protest in St. Louis. A bunch of kids showed up at a bomb factory to protest, and some good ol' boys showed up. Elsewhere in that series is a really distressing pic of a sign that says "Theres [sic, as if you couldn't guess] still too many muslims"

  2. Writing at a tenth grade level is probably above many people's level of understanding. I think I once read that newspapers strive for a sixth or seventh grade level so that a broad number of people can read and understand the news. *head slap*

  3. That's even more alarming when you consider just how low the 10th grade level bar is set by metrics such as the F-K system! 8th grade is standard for many museum exhibits, but I'm not sure they understand just how much text has to be dumbed down to hit that mark. My particular institution claims to shoot for an 8th grade level, but upon checking much of the text created by my predecessors, most of it actually hovers around grade 12.


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