THE WORD ON THE .NET

Writer T. James' Exploration of Words, on the Internet.

How Dumb Do We Think Our Readers Are?

Recently, I have read several blog posts that told me how I ought to write. I’m up for some constructive criticism. In fact I need constructive criticism, but these diktats seemed to be based on the assumption that our readers do not have two brain cells to rub together.

The advice given by some is that we should always use the simplest language when writing, regardless of the style, genre, intended readership group, or subject of the piece concerned. Comments like, “Why use a $10 word when a 10 cent word will do?” illustrate the thinking.

I will put my neck out and say I disagree. As a reader, writer, reviewer, crit-partner – whatever your role – shouldn’t we look at how well the language used works within the context of the piece, and not just seek to see how well it adheres to a set of predefined ‘rules’?

It doesn’t matter whether the ‘rules’ are our own, or some we have adopted from somewhere else.

One of the most commonly quoted advocates of simplicity in writing is, of course, George Orwell, who expressed his views in his well known:

“Five (sic) Rules for Effective Writing:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which (sic) you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

…and…

6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.”

So am I expressing an opinion that appears to be in opposition to one of the literary greats of our time? I don’t think so.

If we go deeper, we see that Orwell’s aim was to promote clarity of communication and not to denigrate the use of powerful and descriptive language. In his classic book “1984” one of the main themes explored is how it is possible to control the populace by outlawing the use of descriptive, evocative, and emotive terms used in everyday language thereby manipulating their thought processes and effectively brain-washing an entire nation.

In the book, eradicating the different, the creative, the spontaneous, the joyous, and the varied use of language left a society culturally impoverished, without an historical anchor, and vulnerable to manipulation. It seems obvious from the way Orwell deals with this topic in “1984” that he was against such dis-empowerment of language.

Another form of written expression, poetry, depends entirely on the freedom to choose words from the full lexicon available to the writer. George, to the best of my knowledge, never stated he was against poetry. It hardly seems likely that he would ever have advocated universally dumbing-down the use of language as some modern overzealous re-interpreters of his ‘rules’ advocate.

Still not convinced? Then why did Mr Orwell feel the need to add the sixth ‘rule’ to his famous five?

I will openly admit that I am often over-liberal in my use of flowery language. However, I do think that the current trend in writing towards simplicity sometimes takes things too far. All languages (a good example being English with its 250,000+ distinct words) are possessed of a richness, a depth, and a history with layers of meaning and subtlety building one upon the other, stretching back through the centuries. The writer who is willing to dig a little deeper and explore this rich trove has access to psychological, emotional, and cultural cues that can greatly expand their creative options as well as giving their readers a richer experience.

However, are our readers up to the task of following our so-called highbrow thoughts? Below I list some words that are of similar ‘difficulty’ to those marked for deletion by some when applying ‘rules’ such as Mr Orwell’s. Language of this level is apparently ‘too hard’ for the average young adult, or even adult reader to cope with…

I compiled two lists of words and phrases by skim-reading two published authors’ work. The ‘difficulty’ is not rated by syllable count, but apparently dictated by the existence of simpler, equivalent, ‘everyday’ words (you will almost certainly disagree with some choices, but it is the overall idea that I wish to convey):

 

List One:

Wreath (verb), scarce, ramshackle, flue,  lurch, slump, hither and yon, dexterous and deft, excepting, lurks, dank, frisking, dander, woefully,  heisted.

 

List Two:

Haversack, vittles, tyrant, bough, inquisitive, unbounded (not to untie),  bidding (not at auction), seeped, blustery,  leeside, dormitory, scornfully, merriment, saturnine, grave-faced, babble, daunting, dirge, patter, saturated, animosity, unmelodious, galore, messmate, blathering, yonder, hostilities, escalate, wavered , dashing, mockingly, eerily, protruding, senselessness, rapped, bore , beaker, perfunctory, tasselled, titbit, garment, sundry, recited, hue, reverie, russet, renovating, indeterminate, bygone, niche, beckoning, curtly, insolent, blurted, sandalled, bewilderment, evident, reproving, cynical, subsided, meandering, plumage, onslaught, humid, interspersed, infernal, wreathed, recesses,vast.

 

Have you guessed who they are?

The first list comes from the books by Dr. Seuss, who wrote for children up to the age of eight. Dr Seuss’ writing contains lines like:

“He lurks in his Lerkim,

cold under the roof,

Where he makes his own clothes out of miff-muffered moof.”

Dr Seuss, “The Lorax”.

Seuss, like Lewis Carroll and other before him, understood that human beings have an inherent genetic ability to confer meaning on a word simply from the context surrounding it. However strange the concept may seem to the Rules Lawyers, it means the ability to understand language and acquire vocabulary is hard-wired into our readers…

The second list comes from the first twenty pages of Brian Jacques’ children’s novel “Doomwyte” (every book in his Redwall series is written in exactly the same style). Do children struggle with his use of language? It seems unlikely as the books from the series as a whole have sold over 20 million copies. So, before cutting words from your writing, especially due to age considerations, just bear in mind that it is not uncommon for twelve-year-olds to read, comprehend, and enjoy books like “Lord of the Rings”.

Maybe it is time for we writers to not dumbly obey the ‘rules’, but to move beyond them and actually start using our brain cells. Let’s start asking questions when we critique, read, or write:

Do the word choices add something to the piece of writing?

Are the word choices appropriate for the intended purpose, genre, style and setting of the book?

Are the word choices appropriate to the current point-of-view character (especially important in first person)?

Do the word choices negatively (I could have used detrimentally ;-) ) affect the pace of the writing, for example in an action scene?

Is the primary aim to evoke emotion, lend colour, or dramatise the piece in a particular way, or am I writing primarily for brevity and clarity, such as when writing a how-to guide or technical manual?

I’m sure there are many other pertinent questions you can think to ask. My last one is:

How many of you struggled to understand this post?

If you didn’t, then it is likely your readers won’t struggle to comprehend your writing either – even if they are children and teenagers, they still have more than two brain cells to rub together.

Writing by dumbly obeying ‘the rules’, may enable you to turn out a story. Will it be the most unique, inspired, creative work you can do? Will it resonate with your voice, and reflect what makes you unique as an individual and as a writer? Certain authors have a cult following for a reason… Let’s bear ‘the rules’ in mind and use them as guidelines, sure. However, in the end, we need to develop and use our own creative judgement if we want our writing to stand out. And our readers? I think they are probably intelligent enough to cope.

 

Image used under Creative Commons license. Click image for details.

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26 Comments

  1. Wonderful thoughts here TJ, and I agree with you. I’ve spent most of my writing life happily ignoring most of those rules. During edits, I do try to cut what I can, take out all the unnecessary “that”s (my big trouble point), and tighten up the language, but never once have I thought to dumb down my vocabulary. I stick with the character’s thought processes, what best reflects them. And when it comes down to it, that part’s not really my decision – I generally let them say what they want to say.

    • That’s an excellent idea… so for this comment I shall hand over to Mr Thick A. S. A. Brick…

      “Yer dat TJ he use all da big words an dat finks ees so cleva you da same as dat TJ both got dat word book wassit called stuck in yer gobs I aint angin aroun here no more sborin an no I dont do punction neither poncy riters ”

      Sorry about that Krista, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea…

  2. I think the rule shouldn’t be “don’t use complicated language” but more “don’t use complicated language for the sake of using complicated language, showing off or trying to appear more intelligent.”

    Like many things in writing, it’s important to use things with awareness. I have nothing against using vocab skillfully, but I do think a thesaurus in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing.

    Great post with excellent examples :)

    • A thesaurus, “…dangerous… “? Preposterous! Your presupposition is fallacious, your minuscule apperception is severely curtailed by a consummate lack of sapience. Farcical bipedal member of the progeny conveying gender! ;-)

    • YES! I don’t mind complicated or unusual words as long as they serve a purpose but showing off or being deliberately obtuse is unnecessary and as bothersome as writers who talk down to their words. Use the vocabulary that is necessary and useful and dump the rest.

  3. Great thoughts! Yes, rules exist for a reason, but that 6th rule is exists for a reason too. There is no one way to write a novel. You do have to consider your audience, but you don’t have to consider them to be dumb….

    Julie/Firewolf

    • Well… if my readers turn out to be dumb, then at least they can’t tell anyone if they don’t like it… (DOH!) ;-) , but I would also have to cut off their fingers so they couldn’t type…

      It may be possible I need counselling for how I handle criticism, you think?

  4. The way a characters speaks also invokes a time and place and as such should never be overlooked. I don’t dumb down my conversation with my son, I use big words and then explain them. I’ve never minded reading a book where I had to look up a word (which as it turns out is embassingly often), what’s the worst that can happen? We learn. Tragedy? Hardly. ;)

    • >>I’ve never minded reading a book where I had to look up a word<<
      Absolutely! Gives me a new option for my arsenal. Every author has their own voice, that should dictate how you write. Your characters will also do that.

      Great post.

      • Hi Kathi,

        Thanks for stopping by.

        I sometimes wonder if writing is a little like acting, if you can put yourself into the mind of the character, then they will come alive on the page.

    • “The way a characters speaks also invokes a time and place and as such should never be overlooked.”

      I couldn’t agree more Tammy. If you can blend setting, time, and characters into a cohesive whole then I think you will give your work a much greater sense of authenticity, and your readers will left more affected by the story you share with them.

  5. I say f*ck it, TJ, and just write how you want:)

    • Hi Anne,

      I can’t resist the cheesy answer… Of course the only person I want to write like is you. ;-)

      I need to fill my prose with the power of the Darke…

  6. I’m reminded of a quote here. C.S. Lewis said: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say’infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

    Or maybe just do what Anne says

  7. Great post, TJ. When writing you have to keep in mind not only who your audience is, but who the narrator is. What’s the tone and flavor of the piece? Dr. Suess had his own zany flavor and any words–real or imaginary–flowed with perfection. We’re willing to accept anything from him. But that doesn’t mean that readers are willing to accept anything from everyone. As long as we’re true to ourselves and our audience, the rest will fall in to place.

    • Hi Danni,

      I’m glad I’m not the only self-confessed fan of Dr Seuss. :-)

      “As long as we’re true to ourselves and our audience, the rest will fall in to place.”

      Your comment hits home for me… I’ve been facing the decision of whether to be ‘true’ to my vision for a piece of writing, or to re-write for a broader ‘target audience’. I’ve chosen what seems, at least to me, to be the greater risk and I’ve decided to stay as close as I can to my original vision…

      So far, I’ve got a strong reaction from everyone who’s read it… Fortunately some really like it, so I’m hoping there will be an audience out there I can be true to…

  8. Thanks for the well thought out and cleverly writen post TJ. It makes a lot of sense to me and to be honest I don’t tend to listen to a lot of the people that use the argument that you’ve had.

    All I do is write what I’d like to read, if the language is too different for the snobs then sod them. Others will enjoy it even if they won’t.

    Have fun and thanks for your clever use of comparables.

    • I’m not snobbish, I just don’t believe in catering to the lowest common denominator, the unwashed, or the oiks!

      What? Shoot the yokel is about to start? Spiffing!! Pass the twelve-bore Lottie!

  9. I loved Dr. Suess and read probably most of the books to my kids when they were young, over and over again. I loved them and so did the kids. Nothing quite like it.
    I’d say that the words have to be appropriate for the story, the line and the character. But, if there’s a better word to replace two or three and it’s a more difficult word, use it. It invokes learning. :) Very good post as usual TJ. You seem to touch on such a wide variety of topics… all interesting and well done. :)

    • Some good points Pat. My little person is in the middle of a Dr Seuss phase, and the language isn’t putting him off one bit.

      The fact we ‘read’ on my phone, with moving pictures and sound effects, may help a bit too… Hopefully my wife is getting the green eggs and ham out of the freezer as I type this…

  10. You know, I think one of the most important things is to know your audience and to capture your voice. I know a writer (who writes academically) who always uses flowery, high-brow language in every piece she produces. EVERYTHING. However, she by doing this she doesn’t capture her wonderful voice and personality. It’s like she’s gone through a thesaurus and picked the most intelligent sounding words. When she asks me to edit for her I’m constantly encouraging her to use her own voice. I don’t think she needs to “dumb it down” but she definitely needs to loosen up.

    I see your point, TJ –There is a time and a place for all different kinds of writing.

    • Hiya Angie,

      First, thanks for taking time out from your last weekend of freedom to write such a long comment… You will be sorely missed. Did you want a wreath, or just a sympathy card? :'(

      I agree about writing with your own voice, and not letting a dictionary or thesaurus speak for you, especially not in everything you write. I wish you luck getting the message across to your friend.

      For me, the question about a writer’s voice becomes more interesting when you are writing from a character’s POV, and that character has an extremely distinct voice of their own. The voice maybe very different from the writer’s. Julie Campbell’s stories about Doc, the vampire hunting dog come to mind as an example we’ve all recently heard of…

      When I write, I hope my own ‘style’ and voice come through, but never louder than the voices of the characters I’m trying to portray…

  11. Interesting post indeed. I don’t think I’ve ever dumbed down my writing and really whichever blog it was that said “Why use a $10 word when a 10 cent word will do?” you should probably stop reading lol!

    I’ve never understood the mentality of “Other people won’t understand that, you need to make it simpler!”. Who are these “other people”? Why are they always portrayed as a bunch of morons? Surely when other writers talk about them then we’re all included in this “other” grouping, yet I know I can understand (and enjoy) lesser used words and more complex sentences.

    So where did this thinking come from? After having moved to America I can only say that it is incredibly prevalent here. TV, adverts, billboards… everything is dumbed down for the populace, just to make sure that these “other people” don’t accidentally drink a car battery or run around naked with a toaster on their head because they didn’t understand the words on the advert.

    • So true Natalie, we live in a world where “not for use internally” is written on the outside of packets of razor blades and tank shells.

      I applaud you for hanging on to your sanity, even if you are a voice crying alone in the wilderness…

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