The Black Swan and Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

A few weeks ago I used a service to do an analysis of my blog to see what reading level it was written at. I was a bit taken aback that the site is at a Junior High School level. As an avid reader and blogger, I should be doing better than Junior High School, shouldn’t I? Giving it some extra thought, I’m not so sure I have anything to be embarrassed about.

How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

Peanut Butter and Jelly SandwichOne of my favorite English professors opened up our class once with a writing exercise, How to make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich. We had a good 30 minutes to write the instructions, and the next day, she surprised us by bringing in a jar of peanut butter, jelly, bread, and a butter knife.

Our fine professor then began to follow the instructions and make the sandwiches. The end product was a disaster with the brief directions as much as with the most descriptive. Perhaps the funniest were those who never mentioned utilizing a knife at all. It was the first English class I had taken that I walked out with a stomach ache from laughing so hard. The point of the lesson stuck with me, though.

Short sentences, concise descriptions, simple vocabulary and short articles may lead you to a Junior High School Reading level, but it also opens your blog (or book) up to a much wider audience who will comprehend the information. I suppose if I had a goal for reading level on my blog, it would probably be junior high school! If I can explain technology I work with to someone who’s 15 years old, then someone that’s 40 can surely digest it!

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

It’s with this attitude that I open a book like The Black Swan and can’t get through the first 50 pages in a month of reading. As one Amazon critique put it:

[Aside from Chapters 15 through 17]…The remainder of the book is disappointing. Hundreds of pages can be summed up in just stating that we can’t predict rare events.

Whew! Thank goodness I’m not the only one! This book was painful. No wonder why folks appreciate blogs so much nowadays. I’m not trying to write a New York Times bestseller nor am I trying to impress an Ivy-leaguer. I’m just trying to explain this stuff as simply as I can so that I can share it and you can understand it.

Words I might use to describe The Black Swan: bombastic, chatty, diffuse, discursive, flatulent, gabby, garrulous, inflated, lengthy, long-winded, loquacious, palaverous, pleonastic, prolix, rambling, redundant, rhetorical, tedious, turgid, verbose, voluble, windy. (Thanks

If Taleb had written How to make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, my professor might still be working on it – and it’s doubtful it would resemble a sandwich at all.

That said, I will be back and taking the critiquer’s advice and reading Chapters 15 through 17. And perhaps a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich is in order! As for the reading level analysis, don’t pay too much attention… one paragraph inserted from a thesaurus might bump you up a notch. 😉


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    Actually, according to writing experts, doing “better” would be writing at an even lower grade level. The average reading level in this country is 6th grade, and all newspapers are written at that level. Good Marketing Communication writers will also write at this level, rather than at a higher level. It makes their copy much easier to read and understand, so it cuts through all the clutter in our lives, and thus, it’s more likely to persuade. (They also don’t say “and thus.”)

    I’ve also been reading Black Swan, and it’s PAINFUL. I wish you had posted this blog about five chapters ago and saved me from this torture.

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    Bless you, Doug, and your commentor for your takes on The Black Swan. It has the same effect on me as a coupla Seconals–10 minutes with the book and I’m gone. Last night I went to bed at 8:45!
    Your boy Nassim is what I call a SAKIA–smart ass know-it-all. He also conforms to my working definition of a highbrow–one whose education exceeds his intelligence. Someone needs to bitchslap this smarmy punk–leaving $100 tips for cabbies.
    As a recovering econ major, we used to have a name for Black Swans. We called them “exogenous events”, and they invariably crapped up all of our neat predictive theories. Econ majors have a more plebian understanding of these things–unpredictable events are unpredictable.

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    As Derek mentioned about Newspapers etc, I read somewhere (famous las words right:) that TIME shoots for a 6th-7th grade reading level when writing their stories as to make it easier for all people to read.

    Some of the best posts I read on different blogs are a few short sentences that have meaning, I think Seth Godin is the master of this.

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    I think The Black Swan may be appropriate for marketers because of its understanding the true risk we now facing in today?s market. In this book, you will learn more about power and control than anywhere else. Power and control get a bad blow – after all, marketers are convincing people every day and these are two pretty persuasive traits? I guess.

    Not an easy read though but would recommend this for decisions makers of all kinds.

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