21 reasons that consider you, your readers, your content, language itself, and how they all relate
According to the Literacy Project, something like 17% of American adults are functionally illiterate and half can’t read a book written at an 8th-grade level. The Center for Plain Language advises that “your audience’s reading age is lower than you think” and suggests writing at the 7th/8th grade level (12–14 years old), noting that the UK government advises writing government-produced material at the reading level of 9 year olds.
There is a case to be made in many instances for using the simplest words, the plainest syntax, and other writing approaches that make reading as easy and accessible as possible. You need or want to reach as many people as possible. You’re delivering crucial medical, emergency, or government services information. You’re sharing basic facts on the internet for others to look up and refer to. Your audience is not comprised of native speakers of the language you write in. And so on.
But there are also many reasons to not dumb down, er, simplify your writing. Or convert it all to straightforward plainspeak. These reasons relate to you, your readers, your message, language itself, or the interplay of these things.
Let’s start with you:
Your exquisite vocabulary is hard-earned. Relish it and deploy as you wish. I never forgot a philosophy professor I once had, Sandra Bartky, who cocked an eyebrow and looked at the class with a withering stare and a toss of her short hair, “What, you don’t like my big words? Well, so what! I worked very hard for this vocabulary and I’m going to use it.”
You may have it in your mind to elevate general literacy expectations and performance of the public at large. You might even agree with the alternative education classic, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling: Public education churns out undereducated numbnuts. We must therefore find substitutes for educating ourselves and others. Here’s one.
Because you are an optimistic sort who believes in human potential, curiosity, and growth.
Besides, your vocabulary and way of expressing yourself help comprise your voice. Your voice is what will attract your readers.
And, speaking of your readers, let’s consider them:
Perhaps the functionally illiterate and partially literate aren’t your target audience.
Perhaps you are writing for readers, those who can read, want to read, and do read. Go ahead and write at the level of those who like and enjoy reading — those who just may read your piece start to finish.
Because perhaps you’re not just writing for any reader, but those readers who still have command of their attention span.
Your readers may also have some intentionality around their schedule — they make time for reading because it matters to them.
Just maybe we shouldn’t assume that those who struggle to read today, won’t read better tomorrow, inspired in part by reading interesting stuff like what you are currently writing.
Because it could be they want the information, inspiration, entertainment, humor, advice, and provocative opinion you are dishing out.
Even weaker readers can often infer the meaning of unknown words from the context, and even if they don’t, it may not deter them from the overall appreciation or understanding of your piece. Isn’t this sometimes the case for you, too, as you trudge through dense literary classics or the latest scholarly research in your field? You do not seek the verbiage of the lowest common denominator.
When it comes down to it, we don’t all know the same words. We don’t all grasp the same ideas, content areas, genres, or literary approaches to a similar extent or depth of appreciation.
The reader should be or could be willing to take on your material as you deliver it. They may happen to respect you the writer, the author, and desire to meet you where you are at.
Your readers, regardless of current level of reading ease and sophistication, are your fellow human beings. Like you, they learn and improve on things over time. Today, they read at a 7th-grade level, but they may progressively pursue more difficult prose until one year they’ve moved up to an 8th-grade level. After that, perhaps it’s onward and upward to a 9th- or 10th-grade ability. The sky’s the limit. Human beings are learning beings, and in part we learn from observation and social mimicry. (This suggests we should all be reading in public and making it look cool, engaging, appealing, so that others want to copy us.)
Autodidacts — the self-taught, self-teaching — live, breathe, and walk amongst us.
Consider your content and messages:
Use the words and approach necessary to best convey your messages.
Use the words and approach that fit with the type of content you create.
Let the jargon and polysyllabic words flow freely if they add value.
And think about language itself:
There are over 171,000 words in current use in the English language. To be fluent, one need only know 10,000 of them. That gives all of us lots of room to learn new ones. Let’s start by adding them into our writing.
As I wrote somewhere else: I have adjectives and I’m not afraid to use them! All of these 171,000+ words exist for a reason. They carry a specificity, slant, nuance that brought them into existence. Let’s not abandon them to the archaic trash heap.
Sometimes roundabout, florid, flamboyant, punctilious, evocative language is in tribute to the language itself. Go for it.
While simplifying language for mass consumption is sometimes a reasonable strategy, even a commonsense mandate, my sense is that in most cases, it’s not necessary or desirable. As you see, there are more reasons to write at the level of complexity you wish or your content requires…from the reader’s point of view. And writing for readers is where most of us place the bulk of our emphasis.
If you have more reasons we shouldn’t dumb down our writing, please email them to me and I'll add them here, credit you, and link to your website or social media profile.