Resist the urge to ‘dumb down’ your content

Writing myths are everywhere. In my 14-plus years as a writer and editor, I have heard everything from “good writers don’t need to be edited” to “you shouldn’t sit down to write until you know exactly what you want to say.”

The myth that I find the most misguided: Writers should “dumb down” their content so everyone, everywhere can read it.

Pure fiction!

The first rule of writing is to write for your audience. Take their current level of knowledge into account, and use language they know and feel comfortable with. Don’t write for sixth-graders if your audience comprises physicians, small-business owners, or individuals with limited English proficiency. Write for sixth-graders if your audience is sixth-graders.

To write with your audience in mind, consider the following:

Identify your audience

First step is to make sure you know your audience. Don’t guess or assume. Ask yourself: Who is my audience? What does my audience already know about the subject? What does my audience need to know? What questions will my audience have?

Consider the format

Will your audience be reading your article in a printed newsletter or on a smartphone? Is it for an HTML newsletter or a blog. Format matters.

Consider the context

When will they be reading what you’ve written? The audience for which I write—physicians—is highly educated, reading at advanced levels. But I have to consider when and under what circumstances they will be reading my articles. Will it be at the end of a long day? Do they have a stack of other publications on their desks? Will they want to read my article if it’s too wordy or uses overly technical language?

Strive for brevity and clarity

No matter the members of your audience, they’ll appreciate language that is clear and concise. Avoid jargon; use simple words in place of complex ones; cut the clichés and buzzwords from your writing.

Mind your adjectives

As writing coach Ann Wylie says, choose your adjectives carefully. Only use those that add real meaning to your text. Should you describe the puppy as “brown” or “cute”? Which adjective provides the reader with more information?

Activate your verbs

Use the active voice in your sentences: subject, verb, object. Passive voice is longer, less conversational, and drains the energy from your sentences. Many writers use the passive voice when they don’t want the reader to know who is performing the action. For example, they may write “Rates were raised” instead of “We raised rates.” What they don’t realize is that readers see right through this ploy. They recognize content that is purposefully vague.

Challenge every word

Omit needless words. Use pronouns, write in the active voice, and choose strong verbs. Eliminate unnecessary modifiers, such as “really” and “very.” In the words of Strunk and White, “Make every word tell.”

Resist the urge to “dumb down” your content. Think about your audience, and keep your writing lean and focused. Your readers will thank you for it.

A version of this story first appeared on Ragan Communication’s PR Daily.

2 Responses to “Resist the urge to ‘dumb down’ your content”

  1. alun lewis says:

    Dear laurajane
    Well done on producing a well written, concise and focussed article. I am in the process of writing a chapter for a guide to scientists for dealing with the media. It will be published later this year by the European Union Joint Research Council. What I have written in great detail is essentially your argument in the above piece. I have been asked to make a written version of the popular course that I teach each year to a group of senior scientists. This in turn is a version of the course that I have developed for undergraduate science students at my college. I agree with all your comments. Would it be OK to link to this page in my chapter – it is fine summary and written by someone else. Do I take it that you are a PR practitioner? This is a useful point to make – I have a short appendix on the correct use of PR.

    • laurajane says:

      Thank you for your comments. Absolutely you can link my page to your chapter. I hope your readers find it useful.

      To answer your other question, I work in the communications department at an malpractice insurance company. So I do a little bit of everything: writing, editing, advertising, public relations, web site content, etc.

      Thanks and good luck with your chapter.