Clear Writing: The Intelligent 15-Year-Old Test

Feb 20, 2012 | Better Writing

“Do people really pay you to write this? It makes NO sense at all.”

With that, my teenage daughter smiled and handed my carefully crafted article back to me. When my kids were teenagers, they were not shy about sharing their opinions.

I’m not sure exactly how I figured out that my kids were absolutely perfect subjects to test whether my writing was clear. But it was a great discovery. My kids were bright and they read well. As teenagers, they knew enough about the world to make sense of anything that I wrote, as long as I did my job and wrote the piece well. If I didn’t, the other benefit of using teenage readers kicked in.

My kids were absolutely fearless about letting me know when I missed the mark. It’s a natural thing. Teenagers are at that stage of life when they’re sure that they’re really smart and that you don’t know much. Not only that, some natural feature of the human growth cycle compels them to tell you when you don’t meet their high standards for clarity.

I learned that if I could explain a business concept to my kids, my other readers would get it, too. And, if it wasn’t clear to my kids, it probably wouldn’t be clear to anybody else, either.

Things went well for a few years, but then, as is nature’s way, my kids grew up. They moved on to their own lives. And they developed manners. I’m proud of that as a parent, but the result was that their criticism wasn’t as candid as before and therefore, not as helpful.

I didn’t want to have more kids, just so I could have fearless readers for a few years in their teens. I decided to find more teenagers. That was easy. I called a local high school and spoke with an English teacher. She knew plenty of intelligent 15-year-olds.

Intelligent 15-year-olds are great for testing your writing. They read as well as your regular readers and they know enough about the world to understand anything you have to say. Most of them won’t care about your subject, which is a good thing. And most of them will be fearless about telling you what they think you said and if you made no sense at all.

The only problem you may have is that some of them will present with “Right Answer Syndrome.” This is the result of a school system that teaches young people there’s a right answer and that the adult seeking their feedback expects them to come up with it.

Bottom Line

Intelligent 15-year-olds are great readers if you want to test your material for clarity. Give them a piece of writing. Ask them to tell you in own words what it says. Then stand back and listen.

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