Stop treating your readers like idiots. » Anne Chaconas, Writer

I’m angry today. Actually, I’ve been angry for a week. Not punch-a-kitten angry–not even punch-a-wall angry. But angry, nonetheless.

It all started early last week, when I was told I needed to dumb down my writing. Well, no. Let me be precise: I was not told I needed to dumb down my writing. I was told I needed to use simpler, more common words. Fewer “ten-cent” words. Words that people didn’t need to think about, words that would easily slide down their intellectual gullet.

The irony of it? I was writing educational material.

I got angry. Inwardly, I ranted. How are people supposed to learn, I fumed, if we don’t make them think? How are people supposed to grow if we help stunt them? 

Although initially livid, I calmed down–until ill-omened stars aligned in ways most wondrous and unexpected.

A few days after the initial “simpler, more common” fiasco, I was listening to a web conference about becoming a more effective blogger. I was hoping for some pointers on marketing posts, targeting audiences, and cross-promoting material. Instead, what I got was something along the lines of this: “Don’t give your readers a lot of ideas at once. They can’t handle it. Give them just one idea. Make it easy to understand. And make sure you use pictures. Lots of pictures. People don’t read things unless there are pictures. And keep it short. People don’t read long things.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing–there’s no way I could ever come close to imitating the slimy, fast-talking, used-car-salesman vibe that this particular presenter managed to emanate, even through my computer screen. At first, I was willing to sit through the presentation just to see if I eventually got even a bit of good information. I found myself completely incapable of sticking around, however, when he said that he was unable to read articles on The New Yorker because there were “too many words.” He, apparently, couldn’t deal with large blocks of text. Needless to say, my itchy trigger finger found the “Exit” button rather quickly after that.

And finally, this morning found me impersonating a camel with that proverbial straw just fluttering right into position: A blog post from someone (whom thankfully I am not friends with) talking about how using advanced vocabulary means you’re a “snob”–a “douche” who is “ruining [their] writing.”

Well. I’d just about had damned enough.

At what point did we determine that complex vocabulary wasn’t an effect of knowledge and education but actually a sign of snobby douchebaggery? When did blocks of text become mentally indigestible? When did pictures replace prose? When did we start assuming that penning a post longer than 100 words would mean all you got back from your audience was a tl;dr?

At what point did we decide that our readers are idiots?

Let me ask you this, Dear Writer: Why are you so eager to assume your readers are so stupid, so abysmally half-witted, that they are unable to focus on anything over fifty words long that’s not slathered in pictures and littered with nothing but two-syllable words? Why? At what point did we become the enablers of intellectual sluggishness? When did we decide that simple meant good?

This doesn’t just happen in blogging. It happens in book-writing, too. Don’t give your reader too much backstory–it slows the story down, they get antsy and stop reading! Avoid adverbs–readers can’t handle them! OMG, make sure to use lots of dialogue, readers get bored if they don’t hear people talk. Don’t write long descriptions, you’ll lose the reader! 

I believe we’ve been trapped by the desire to be read. We’re deathly afraid that if we raise the standard, if we make people think, if we force them to learn, that we’ll be shunned for it. Make it easy, make it simple, has become the mantra to which so many of us march. The problem with this is that the easier we make it–the simpler it becomes–the less memorable it is. Sure, we might get lucky and the masses might like it; we might even make good money off it. But we’ll be nothing more than a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder.

You could argue that simple sells. You would be right. The 50 Shades trilogy is simplistic muck at its best, and it’s making the author seven figures every week. But, I ask you: Would you rather be rich, or would you rather be memorable? In fifty years, 50 Shades will be remembered–if it’s even remembered at all–as nothing more than a pop-culture punchline from an oversexed early-twenty-first century society. But Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Steinbeck, Twain (and so many, many other literary greats): They’ll be remembered for the complexity of their ideas, the timelessness of their message, the ripples they effected upon the literary landscape. And why? Because they didn’t treat their readers like idiots. They made them think. They didn’t worry about whether someone would have to reach for the dictionary to figure out their prose. They worried about which words would elevate their story.

Dear Writer: You complain that readers wouldn’t understand complex writing, but you dumb yours down to conform–you’re perpetuating their ignorance.

Dear Writer: You argue that readers wouldn’t know what to do if you chose to use lengthy descriptions over dialogue–yet you eschew the descriptions out of that very same fear, never giving readers a chance to raise their own levels of understanding.

Dear Writer: You worry more about being read than about what you’re putting out there for people to read–you are pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Dear Writer: You are a reader, too. Are you an idiot? Would you enjoy being called an idiot? Are you unable to focus on lengthy prose? Are you unwilling to learn a new word?

I’m enlivened by Seth Godin’s words: “You are far more likely to do your best work if you are willing to delight a few as opposed to soothe the masses.”

Delight the few, Dear Writer. Stop trying to please the masses. Instead, aim to uplift your craft. Create the new normal. Write the story you want to write, not the one you think you should write. Don’t be a literary bully–stop calling people stupid. Remember, you are a reader, too. You’re not simple-minded; why are you assuming everyone else is?

STOP TREATING YOUR READERS LIKE IDIOTS.

I make this pledge to myself, to my readers, and to you, Dear Writer: I will never stop using my ten-cent words. I will never stop writing my story the way I know it needs to be written. I will never dumb down my prose because I’m afraid of nonacceptance. I would rather be penniless and memorable than rich and forgotten. My mark upon the world will be forged with intellect, complexity, and originality. What about yours?

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