By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
The image of the trial lawyer that comes closest to our ideal might involve the advocate standing in front of the jury or the bench, waxing eloquent in oral argument. But the reality is that, even for lawyers who get to trial frequently, they're writing more often than they're speaking. Before, after, and often instead of those opportunities for oral persuasion, they are drafting briefs, motions, and memos. As attorneys get used to that written style, it can become difficult to gauge how comprehensible they are. You think you're being perfectly clear -- and you are, to you -- but you may have lost track of how much work is falling on the reader. There is, however, a tool that can help, and lawyers should be aware of it. Contently, the content-marketing blog, writes about "reading level analysis" as a free online service you can use in order to test whether you're writing at, say, a 5th, 9th or 12th grade reading level. The test itself is easy. You simply navigate to the "readability-score" site, paste any text you want into the window, or upload a file if it is in pdf, or paste in a URL if the text is already online. Then, click "calculate score" and you instantly get a "reading ease" number that varies between 0 (most difficult) and 100 (easiest), along with a more understandable identification of the grade-level that you are writing at.
This blog, for example, is written at about a 7th grade reading level. So...middle school is apparently where I peaked. The Jury Expert, the journal covering many of the same topics I address, is a year behind -- just finishing elementary school at 6th grade. But lest we assume that this means we're all publishing in baby talk, it is worth asking the question "What level are we aiming at?" The answer is, "A lot lower than you might think." As the Contently post indicates, most best-selling authors write at the 8th grade level, or below. Some of the greats of Western literature, like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea are far lower: 4th grade. Now, readers (those of you who made it past 7th grade) might wonder, why wouldn't reading level be at least 12th, if not collegiate level for works who aim to speak to advocates and legal decision makers? The answer is that you don't just want your writing to be just possible to understand, you want it to be easy. That imperative to make it easier applies to writing, and it applies at least doubly to speaking. This post takes a look at assessing your level of language, and includes an illustration of some of the features that take language to a higher or lower level.