It is said that the average newspaper is written on a 5th grade level and that the average online reader is at that or below. There is common misconception about this belief and why it is so.
This doesn’t mean that only 5th graders are using the Internet or that everyone reading online content is uneducated. Instead, it refers to the state of mind that the average reader is in when they are using the Internet.
The Internet is now something we turn to in a hurry when we need to find info fast. Even if you are just browsing around, there is so much to see that it is easy to get distracted, caught up or swept away from one site to another and another and… so on.
Often people use the Internet while they are doing other things. With mobile devices as popular as there are today, there is no telling what else a person is doing while they are locating your content online. These facts greatly reduce the attention span and comprehension levels of the person reading your content. This is where the 5th grade average comes in.
When I first started writing for the Internet back in 1998, I got told by a few early clients to “tone it down” or even to “dumb it down” when it came to my writing. I was fresh out of school for writing and recently published in big name magazines so I didn’t “get” why they would be telling me to downplay my writing.
At first I was irritated and even offended but like other things that I don’t understand, I began to research it. Since then, it has changed even more since more people use the Internet and we are now capable of “connecting” nearly anywhere. This means there are a lot of distractions for the person reading your writing and keeping it simpler, with more white space on the page makes it easier for the reader.
Shorter sentences, simpler words and using bullets and numbered lists make your online content more pleasing to the eye and the mind of the online reader. It’s a different style of writing than offline magazines and other publications.
This doesn’t mean that you sacrifice quality and basic editing in the process of going simpler but it may mean you trade in some of those $10 words for $5 words and cut that 1,000 word piece to 2-500 word pieces instead. It means that you put items in bullets and instructions in lists and you get to the point as quickly as possible without a lot of fluff.
Some writers are better at producing offline content and can’t shift to the online methods of successful content. Then there are some who can rake in the readers online but couldn’t hack it at all in the offline publishing world. Some gifted writers (or well trained writers) can learn to do both. The latter requires being able to shift back and forth according to which venue you are writing for. Ultimately, understanding the difference will make a world of difference in your writing career.