A fellow writer on Twitter gave this writing advice today: “Don’t dumb it down. You don’t need to assume the reader won’t understand what you are saying. Assume they WILL understand.” I agree with him wholeheartedly but this advice doesn’t exactly apply for people writing online. My response to him was this: Anyone who uses WordPress for their website is actively dumbing down all they write all the time, or at least they are being encouraged to. In that 34% of all websites are powered by WordPress – including the likes of The Walt Disney Company, Microsoft News, and the New York Post – there’s a lot of dumbing down going on.
Let me tell you how this works with my stories, all of which are intended for an online market. After I write a blog, I post it on WordPress as I prepare to send it out to my subscribers. Before scheduling its release, I do all the things WordPress suggests for “search engine optimization” (SEO), things that will help make my story easily searchable and successful online. For instance, I choose a “focus” word or phrase for the story and make sure that word appears in my title and my first paragraph. I also choose a “snippet” so Google will know what to show in its search results. Since I want my writing to be found online, all of this is good.
I then have the opportunity to put my story through a “readability analysis,” which is where the opportunity for dumbing down takes place. WordPress’s SEO expert is Yoast and they define good web text as material that can easily be understood by a 13-15-year-old. Specifically, they want short words, sentences, and paragraphs.
- Short words– “If you use too many difficult words, you might scare off your readers. Words with four or more syllables are considered difficult to read, so try to avoid them where possible. For example, try words like small instead of minuscule, about instead of approximately, and use instead of utilize.”
- Short sentences – Sentences containing more than 20 words are problematic. Writers are encouraged to have at least 75% of their sentences contain 20 words or less.
- Short paragraphs – Paragraphs containing more than 150 words are also discouraged.
You will note that I broke into bullet points above. WordPress likes this! They actively encourage writers to break things up in a long piece. The use of bullet points, numbered lists, and subheadings all work. The rationale is this: It is inherently difficult to read from a screen so writers should not make matters worse by asking readers to plow through long words and lengthy sentences.
I get a bit harrumph-y reading this! How dare they tell me how to write?! But then I learn there are perks for me to follow these guidelines. I learn that if my writing is hard to read, my blog subscribers will leave my website. This will give me a high “bounce rate” which will then give me a low Google ranking. Since a low Google ranking is not good for my business, it behooves me keep things simple, to aim for a high readability score, to dumb things down.
The Yoast website explains this away saying, “You’re not dumbing down, you’re opening up. By simplifying content, you’re automatically growing your audience as more people grasp the message of your content.” I think this is true in some cases. Back in the 1940s an early readability test, the Flesch Reading Ease Check, (which is a part of the Yoast review) was born. It helped the Associated Press bring the reading level of front-page newspaper stories down from the 16th grade to the 11th grade thus increasing readership by 40-60%. That’s great! But the WordPress/Yoast readability test wants me – and other writers who are not necessarily cognizant of this information – to make our reading level lower than that, to make it appropriate for those who are 13-15-years-old.
I can’t intentionally do that, but then again, I don’t need to. My intended audience is older and I will write for them trusting they will have the ability to stick with my story and not bounce away from my website.
Beyond thinking about all of this as a writer I consider it as a reader as well. While I am still adept at reading books, I find I have difficulty reading lengthy articles such as those found in The New Yorker. After learning what I have written about here, I have an inkling of what has happened to my reading skills. I am so used to scanning listicle type articles online, I don’t have the patience to actually read stories that are dense with words. Now that I understand this problem, I can work to beef up my reading skills once again.
I wonder what your thoughts are on this topic? I hope you’ll take the opportunity to leave a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.
P.S. If you are wondering what WordPress/Yoast thinks of my story, here are their comments:
- You are not using subheadings, although your text is rather long.
- 30% of the sentences contain more than 20 words, which is more than the recommended maximum of 25%. Try to shorten the sentences.
- In spite of these flaws, the story has a Flesch Reading Ease score of 69. Scores of 60-70 are easily understood by 13-15-year-old students.