In 2003, the Advertiser Democrat hired me as a reporter, even though I was thin on journalistic experience. The editor, Susan Arena, nursed me along, teaching me about interviewing, how to write a lead, and how not to bury that lead.

Howard James, the owner and publisher, would also talk to me about ways to improve my reporting.

In addition to news articles, I started writing a column called What I’ve Learned, about whatever odd thing struck my fancy. Mr. James, however, wanted me to write about topics local to the Oxford Hills. And he had some additional advice.

“Watch your vocabulary,” he said. “Don’t write at so high a level. This is a small town newspaper, not a historical or scientific journal.”

I tried to be obedient. My next column was about a torchlight parade that was held on Norway’s Main Street. I used smaller words and shorter sentences.

Soon, though, I had a relapse, choosing far-flung topics and writing at a level higher than appropriate. Mr. James spoke to me about it several more times, but eventually gave up on trying to harness my muse.


After a few years, I needed a break from news reporting and gave my notice. My column, I figured, was tied to my job and would end with my employment. To my surprise, the Advertiser asked if I would continue to write What I’ve Learned.

Recently, I wondered if Howard James (who died in 2018) would be as concerned today about my topic choices and writing level as he had been in 2004 and 2005. So I compared what I write now to what I wrote then.

I think my topics are as varied today as they were 20 years ago. But length and readability have changed.

My early columns had no word limit and would often be a thousand words or more. One even clocked in at an impressive 1,876 words. I remember my editor telling me, “Take however many words you feel you need.”

That changed around 2015 when I was asked to keep the columns at 500 to 600 words. Today, I consistently write about 500.

To check reading levels, I randomly chose three columns from 2005 and three from this year and tested them with a writing analyzer. The analyzer includes such tools as Gunning Fog, the Flesch-Kincaid, the Coleman-Liau Readability Index, and the Linsear Write Formula. These use sentence length, number of words of three syllables or more, grammar, and other data to determine the grade level of a piece of writing.

The columns from 2005 were at a twelfth-grade level. The three from this year were at a sixth, a seventh, and a ninth-grade level.

I ran this column through as well. It’s at a seventh-grade level.

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