Why we write at a 6th grade level

Variety of content and the need for empathy drive our effort to simplify language across Mass.gov

Nearly 7 million people live in Massachusetts, and millions more visit the state each year. These people come from different backgrounds and interact with the Commonwealth for various reasons.

Graphic showing more than 3 million visitors go to Mass.gov each month.

We need to write for everyone while empathizing with each individual. That’s why we write at a 6th grade reading level. Let’s dig into the reasons why.

Education isn’t the main factor

The Commonwealth has a high literacy rate and a world-renowned education network. From elementary school to college and beyond, you can get a great education here.

We’re proud of our education environment, but it doesn’t affect our readability standards. Navigating the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program might be challenging for everyone.

Complexity demands simplicity

People searching for nutrition services are doing so out of necessity. They’re probably frustrated, worried, and scared. That affects how people read and retain information.

Learn about our content strategy. Read the 2017 content team review.

This is the case for many other scenarios. Government services can be complicated to navigate. Our job is to simplify language. We get rid of the white noise and focus on essential details.

Time is not on our side

You don’t browse Mass.gov in your free time. It’s a resource you use when you have to. Think of it as a speedboat, not a cruise ship. They’ll both get you across the water, just at different speeds.

Graphic showing desktop visitors to Mass.gov look at more pages and have longer sessions than mobile and tablet visitors.

Mass.gov visitors on mobile devices spend less time on the site and read fewer pages. The 44% share of mobile and tablet traffic will only increase over time. These visitors need information boiled down to essential details. Simplifying language is key here.

Exception to the rule

A 6th-grade reading level doesn’t work all the time. We noticed this when we conducted power-user testing. Lawyers, accountants, and other groups who frequently use Mass.gov were involved in the tests.

These groups want jargon and industry language. It taught us that readability is relative.

Where we are today

We use the Flesch-Kincaid model to determine reading level in our dashboards. It accounts for factors like sentence length and the number of syllables in words.

This is a good foundation to ensure we consistently hit the mark. However, time is the most important tool we have. The more content we write, the better we’ll get.

Writing is a skill refined over time, and adjusting writing styles isn’t simple. Even so, we’re making progress. In fact, this post is written at a 6th grade reading level.

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