Advice, Professional Development, Writing

The One About Dumbing Down Your Writing

If there is one piece of advice you take from this blog, let this be it –

Do not dumb down your writing.

Over the last several months I have had a handful of individuals request that I use smaller words. Their argument centers on an erroneous premise. Namely, that “big” words are not part of the vocabularies of “regular” people. This could not be further from the truth. “Regular” people use middle and high-school level words all the time. Seriously, we’re talking about words you would expect to learn between the seventh and twelfth grade. Not words you would expect to hear at a symposium on quantum physics.

Your typical newspaper or magazine is written at the seventh and twelfth grade levels. Examples of the words I’ve been asked to eliminate are inconclusive, verbose, pedantic, and morose. These are not super-complicated words, and guess what? I learned them in high-school. Yet, I routinely have people claiming that they’re “too hard,” and that I need to talk/write like “normal” people.


The fact that this is even being said is evidence that the American public is being dumbed down. I am not advocating for gobbledygook – dense, over-complicated writing. We don’t need to whip out the three and five hundred-dollar words. Instead, I am advocating for a push-back against a trend of intellectual laziness. In 2014, The Atlantic published the results of a study by the Pew Research Center. According to the data almost a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. Furthermore, a follow-up survey by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2015 showed only 43 percent of adults read literature.

This is ironic because we live in the digital age. Critics have been quick to blame modern technology, but that is false. Technology simply digitized what was already in print. Instead, the fault lies with the widespread embrace of ignorance thanks to pop culture. At one time, it was understood that low-quality media provided nothing of intellectual or cultural value. The general public was more discerning where it concerned their reading material.

Now, readers can gorge themselves on low-quality media 24/7/365.

Advertising moguls and network executives encourage consumers to binge on click-bait articles and shock-jock soundbites.These carnival barkers are able to sell us this cognitive junk food by playing to our baser instincts. A chilling effect of this trend is a shrinking vocabulary among the general populace. A literal dumbing down.

Admittedly, people are reading, but they’re not reading anything worthwhile. Likely this is due to the prevailing cultural myth that the only people who read are snobby intellectuals from Big City, USA. True, there are know-it-all types in this world. However, just because ignorant people exist doesn’t mean we need to follow suit.

Reading is good for you. High-quality literature – whether it is Harry Potter or War and Peace – is good brain food. Yes, you do not have to read a “fancy” book to be well-read. The book just has to be well-written. The positive effects of reading are well-documented. The same is true for the negative effects of not reading.

This downward trend in reading has led to a diminished vocabulary in the general public. People know less words. Subsequently, writers must contend with readers telling them to dumb down their writing.

“…only 43 percent of adults read literature.”

Words that are commonplace in high-school curricula across this country are now considered too challenging. Increased access to information, (i.e. online dictionaries, dictionary apps, actual dictionaries, etc…), has not curbed this trend. Therefore, the buck needs to stop with the content creators – writers.

A writer is not obligated to coddle or enable the intellectually lazy. A good writer knows they must writer both clearly and concisely. Why use eight extra words when one will suffice? If a reader doesn’t know the meaning of a word they should take the following advice –

Look it up.

Back in the day this was how “regular” people improved their vocabularies. Instead of bullying a writer to use small words they used a dictionary. Likewise, people read the local newspaper or went to the library. Those who could afford the luxury purchased books. At one time it was acceptable and encouraged for one to be well-read. Now, being literate is anathema and readers demand writers simplify their prose.

No thanks.

If my parents had enabled and coddled my intellectual laziness I wouldn’t be where I am today. If I heard or saw a word I didn’t know I was told to look it up before asking either of them. In time I learned to do this on my own. My large vocabulary, honestly, is the result of reading and using the dictionary. Not because I went to college and got a degree. You do not have to go to college in order to be well-read or well-spoken. You just need a willingness to learn and challenge yourself.

I say this because an objective look at the situation tells us there is no reason for it to even exist. The local library and thrift store are excellent sources of free or cheap books. For those who can afford it there are iPads, Kindles, and smartphones. It makes sense to invest in self-education and personal improvement. One need look no further than our outdated public and private education systems to see why. To that end I will continue writing at a seventh and twelfth grade level. I want my writing to be accessible and of good quality. You can’t get that with hackneyed, simplistic, substandard prose.


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