One-Minute Book Reviews

February 18, 2008

Writing Levels of the U.S. Presidents — Can You Write at a Higher Level Than George W. Bush? — Here’s How to Find Out (Encore Presentation)

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Who wrote at a higher level, Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln? Check the results of a survey that calculated their grade levels using the readability statistics on Microsoft Word in this special encore presentation of last year’s Presidents’ Day post

Need a reason to feel good about the direction our country is taking on Presidents’ Day? Try this: George W. Bush can write at a higher level than Thomas Jefferson.

Not long ago, I found that novelist Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade level when I typed part of For One More Day into my computer, then ran the Microsoft Word spell-checker www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/. When you do this, you see the Flesch-Kincaid grade level at the bottom of the column of numbers that appears on your screen. (If you don’t see the grade level, search Microsoft Word Help for “Readability Statistics,” then select “Display Readability Statistics,” which will tell you how to make them appear.)

So I wondered: Could any of our presidents write at a higher level than a No. 1 best-selling novelist? I used Microsoft Word to calculate the reading levels of the presidents’ books, if these were easily available, and their best-known speeches if not. Here are the results:

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage Grade 12
Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid Grade 12
Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Four Freedoms” Speech Grade 11.2
Ronald Reagan, An American Life Grade 11.1
Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe Grade 11.1
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address Grade 10.9
George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep Grade 10.8
Bill Clinton, My Life Grade 8.2
Gerald Ford, A Time to Heal Grade 8.1
Lyndon B. Johnson “Why Are We in Vietnam?” Speech Grade 7.3
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Abigail Adams,
July 1, 1787 Grade 5.3

I entered 305 words from each book, beginning on page 24, because the first chapter of a book often doesn’t represent the whole. A typical book chapter has about 20 pages, so I started on page 24. And because a paragraph or two may not represent the whole, either, I entered 305 words, or more than a page, which usually has about 250–300 words. When I used a speech, I entered the whole speech.

This survey showed that George Bush wrote in A Charge to Keep – what, you’ve forgotten it? — at a higher level than Thomas Jefferson did in a letter to Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams. Bush also wrote at higher level than Bill Clinton did in My Life and LBJ did in his “Why Are We in Vietnam?” speech at Johns Hopkins University. But Jefferson comes out ahead if you give him credit for writing the Declaration if Independence single-handledly. It’s written at the level of Grade 12.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

6 Comments »

  1. An interesting analysis, but what about the audiences involved? Writers adjust their reading level depending on their audiences. So Jefferson writing a letter is different from Jefferson writing the Declaration. The Declaration itself shows just how skilled he was in rhetoric and linguistic variation–what a remarkable piece of writing that is, single-handed or not. In the modern era I suspect a lot of this depends on editors, advisers, and publicity folk.

    Comment by Chris Routledge — February 18, 2008 @ 6:02 am | Reply

  2. You’re right, Chris. In general I’ve found the writing levels of novelists more consistent than those of politicians, no doubt for one of the reasons you mentioned — in the modern era, so much depends on the speechwriters.

    I agree with those who say that the Gettysburg Address is the greatest speech in American political history. But I wonder if we’ll ever have another that comes close now that so many speeches are written by a committee (at least a committee of two — the speaker and the speechwriter). Even 9/11 didn’t produce one.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 18, 2008 @ 10:21 am | Reply

  3. Janice – you just had to bring this up didn’t you!
    I just pasted one of my little blurbs and found that I’m writing at a third grade level. Another gem was rated at a 5th grade level.

    Jeesh.
    (Jeesh is one of those 3rd grade words)

    Who is this Flesch Kincaid fellow anyway – and what’s he doing in my computer! :)

    Comment by P — February 19, 2008 @ 10:20 am | Reply

  4. P: On the bright side, I read that Mitch Albom got $8 million in one of his publishing deals. Maybe you’re closing on the big money.

    Wikipedia has an entry on Flesch-Kincaid http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flesch-Kincaid_Readability_Test/. Wikipedia is far from perfect (or, as in some of its posts about Ishmael Beah, even objective). But its page on F-K does give some basic info. Thanks for your comment.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 19, 2008 @ 11:26 am | Reply

  5. I checked a few of my blog posts, and I’m hovering at an eighth-grade level. I’m going to do a Google search to see if Mitch Albom is teaching any writing courses.

    Comment by moonbeammcqueen — February 21, 2008 @ 12:54 am | Reply

  6. Stephen King writes at an eighth-grade level, and among critics, he’s one of the most respected genre-fiction writers …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 21, 2008 @ 1:22 am | Reply


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