Writing content to the lowest common denominator??

The following is a guest post by George Sackett, Content Supervisor in the Community Relations office of St. Louis Community College a four-campus college with 26,000 students. St. Louis Community College recently undertook a complete rewrite and redesign of their Web site to reinforce their “one college” philosophy.  George’s prior experience includes Director of Communications for the Fisheries Service of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. George was been responsible for instituting a weekly online newsletter from the Director of Fisheries, before blogging was even a word. You can connect with him through Twitter or LinkedIn.  This is the third post in the .eduGuru Blogger(s) Search Contest.

A community college has some special challenges, one of which is the demographics of our audience. We offer both “academic” degrees for students looking to get an affordable start to a four-year degree and career programs that provide the skills necessary to enter directly into the workforce. As a consequence, there is a wide range of ages and academic backgrounds in our student body. Trying to write content in a manner that appeals to the variety of visitors creates some challenges.

When we undertook a complete rewrite of our 30,000 page Web site, we started almost from scratch. Most of the writing was done by folks in the Community Relations office that have extensive backgrounds in writing, mostly for the print world. We also made the decision to use the AP style. We launched the new site with just over 3,000 pages of new content. It was much more concise and consistent and, according to all reports, a huge improvement.

After the launch, someone in the group thought to run an analysis of the content through Hubspot’s website grader that evaluates the reading level of a site. We discovered that our pages “read” at a level of the Harvard Law Review! The discussions began as to what, if anything, needed to be done. One side said that we are an institution of higher learning and the quality of writing should present a polished image to the pubic to maintain our credibility. Another said that we need to consider our audience and we need to be “user friendly” to all our audiences.

The decision and recommendation was, *surprise,* a compromise. First, there was a discussion of the Web site that did the analysis and how it determines the reading level. It uses an algorithm that analyzes the number of letters in each word, the number of words in a sentence and the number of sentences in a paragraph. Many of the pages dictated the vocabulary appropriate for the subject, so we were limited in the changes we could make there, but we did find that we could often make our sentences shorter, break up our paragraphs and use more lists to improve the presentation of our information and the readability of the pages.

In the end, I felt that our writers had to write in the manner that was most comfortable to them or the quality of their writing suffered. We did encourage them to keep certain guidelines in mind,

Our results have been good. Follow-up scoring of a variety of pages have shown that our scores are more in line with our audience. We also surveyed some of our readers to get a feel for their reaction to the content. The results were as expected; our expected audience found the content informative and understandable.

So, is it necessary to write to lowest reading level of the audience? I do not think so. If the content is written clearly and concisely with liberal use of lists and tables where the information warrants it, you can still maintain a high level of quality of writing while making the content accessible to most levels of reading ability.

3 Responses to “Writing content to the lowest common denominator??”

  1. Says:

    GREAT to see a post here about writing, my first love. (And yes, there is a difference between writing and blogging.) I agree that the writing style and voice of the author — or “content creator” as writers are sometimes called these days (ick) — should carry the day, and if the writer is a pro at copy or news writing, he or she should know how to connect with the reader.

    Interesting that the reading level of SLCC’s site was on a par with the Harvard Law Review. Not good. Writing for the web, especially, should be conversational, accessible and informative.

    Reading levels are important, and a low reading level doesn’t mean low quality. John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway wrote at about the sixth or seventh grade levels, if I recall correctly, and those guys were no slouches when it comes to cranking out good copy.

  2. Says:


    We had this talk on Twitter, but I thought I’d share it for the benefit of the community.

    Communication is a personal passion of mine. The deadly combination of higher ed + IT makes us doubly doomed to get caught up in our own jargon that we forget to actually communicate.

    No one, not even the best and brightest of us, curls up and reads the Web cover-to-cover. Your suggestions of using bullet points and tables are very helpful to people who might for get this.

    Thanks for sharing!


  1. Stuff you should be reading | 11.20.08 » Reading, Writing and Big Ideas --> says:

    [...] Writing content to the lowest common denominator? So, is it necessary to write to lowest reading level of the audience? [...]