Saturday, 21 September 2013

Dr Seuss and the genius of writing simply

Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) was an American writer, poet, and cartoonist most widely known for children's picture books written and illustrated under the pen name Dr Seuss.

Geisel published 46 children's books, characterized by imaginative characters, rhyme, and poetic rhythm.

His books have topped many bestseller lists, sold over 600 million copies, and been translated into more than 20 languages. 

Some of his most celebrated works, including The Lorax,  Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton Hears a Who! and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! , have been made into successful films.

 In 2000, Publishers Weekly compiled a list of the best-selling children's books of all time; of the top 100 hardcover books, 16 were written by Geisel, including Green Eggs and Ham, at number 4, The Cat in the Hat, at number 9, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, at number 13.

Giesel was a perfectionist in his work and would sometimes spend up to a year on a book. He wrote most of his books in anapestic tetrameter, a poetic meter employed by many poets of the English literary canon. This is often suggested as one of the reasons that his writing was so well received.

But his genius was also in being able to express himself in very simple words. Unlike his later works which employed hundreds of imaginative made up words, his earlier books used simple common words of mainly one syllable.

His friend William Spaulding apparently proposed that he write and illustrate a book that six and seven year olds ‘can't put down!’  He supplied Geisel with a list of 348 words that every six year old should know, and insisted that the book's vocabulary be limited to 225 words. 

Giesel used 223 of them and added 13 more. The Cat and the Hat is 1,629 words in length and uses a vocabulary of only 236 distinct words, of which 54 occur once and 33 twice.

Green Eggs and Ham is even simpler. It contains 50 different words of which 49 are only one syllable in length; the only exception being ‘anywhere’.

Writing simply and clearly is an extraordinary gift and skill that many don’t have but it is an essential ingredient for reaching a large audience.

I was intrigued to read on the Bible Society website to see Chief Executive James Catford extolling the merits of retelling Bible passages using only the1,000 most commonly used English words.

He quotes Leonardo da Vinci as saying that 'simplicity is the ultimate sophistication'. Catford argues that recasting Bible passages in this way compels us to really consider the text, helps ‘lower the barrier to entry’ and can give a fresh personal view. He includes a rewrite of Psalm 46 to illustrate his point.

In linguistics, the Gunning fog index measures the readability of English writing. The index estimates the years of formal education needed to understand the text on a first reading so a fog index of 12 requires the reading level of a US high school senior (around 18 years old).

The fog index is commonly used to confirm that text can be read easily by the intended audience. Texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12. Texts requiring near-universal understanding generally need an index less than 8.

Tabloid newspapers are generally 8-12, broadsheets 14-16 and medical journals 18. Interestingly Jesus Sermon on the Mount is 6 and the Ten Commandments 5!  

There’s certainly a lesson there. 

In case you are wondering this blog post has a Gunning Fog index of 9.8, which means you need to be 16 to understand it on a first reading. I can see I still have some way to go!


  1. Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat are two of my favourite books of all time. I have read them repeatedly to all 4 of my children, and I like to think they are partly responsible in making them all voracious readers.

  2. On what do you feed your children's minds? Our Lord Jesus Christ taught that it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a man. Dr. Seuss will have to give an answer to the Lord on the Judgement Day for his writings, not least of all the story of the king who, like Pharaoh, resorted to witchcraft. He employed the services of six sinister 'priests' versed in the magical arts to obtain all his desires. What kind of message does that send out to children? How many adults have also been captivated by the magic arts performed by Harry Potter?
    An early reading scheme circulated in Lancashire, even in our church schools, glamorised piracy and exalted the pirate that outwitted the other 3 pirates.

    "Call no man teacher, for I only am your Teacher."