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A Taxing Message from the IRS

Today I received the "Economic Stimulus Payment Notice" from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) of the United States Department of the Treasury. It was a notice to all U.S. taxpayers (with a greeting "Dear Taxpayer") about a tax rebate most taxpayers will receive in May.

The reading level for a message to all taxpayers should be about 7th grade. Unfortunately, this message from the IRS was written at a grade level of 14.2.

I learned the grade level when I checked the grammar and spelling of the document in Microsoft Word. To do this yourself, click Tools/Options/Spelling and Grammar and then check the box for Show readability statistics. (In Vista, click Office Button/Word Options/Proofing and check the same box.) After checking this box, do a spelling and grammar check; at the end, the readability statistics will appear.

Sentence length and word length determine grade level. This 41-word opening sentence of the IRS letter demonstrates its 14.2 grade level:

We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed and Present George W. Bush signed into law the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, which provides for economic stimulus payments to be made to over 130 million American households. 

Microsoft assigns a grade level of 21.4 to that sentence. Here is the same opening revised to a grade level of 10.8:

We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008. President George W. Bush signed the act into law. The law provides for economic stimulus payments to be made to over 130 million households.

The essential difference between the two passages is sentence length. The first example has one 41-word sentence; the revision has three sentences averaging 14 words.

In a recent Better Business Writing class, a participant cheered when she found the reading level of her piece to be 12th grade. She had thought that since most of her readers were high school graduates, 12 grade level was perfect. But people who have studied reading comprehension recommend writing at around a 9th grade level, depending on the piece and its audience.

Even if your readers can read at a higher level, why should they need to do so? They have dozens, if not hundreds, of messages to read each day. Why not make their jobs easier?

Check the grade level for a piece you have written. If the level is high, you will notice that your sentences and words are long. Shorten those, and the grade level will drop.

Make it easy for your readers. Don’t tax them.

Syntax Training  

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.