In college, I spent three years of my life sitting in a long, octagon-shaped room reading college students’ papers aloud. This was my school’s Writing Center, and I worked there regularly—helping classmates with the often-arduous process of getting words from the head to the pen.
As an English major at my little liberal arts college, I inevitably came up against a lot of content—from textbooks to novels to pages upon pages of my classmates’ works in progress. There was always a paragraph or a site or a post to sink my teeth into, and—often—that I was required to sink my teeth into. And—as an English major—I learned all too well how completely and terribly agonizing it can be to connect with content.
One of the most heartbreaking things about working in the Writing Center was the sheer amount of kids who thought they were “too dumb” to “get” the things they read in class. Students came in in varying degrees of distress, faces alternating between glazed and desperate, completely wrecked by a paragraph or page—feeling barred from the things they were supposed to understand because of language that just didn’t sit right.
This is a scary thing for a tutor—or even more, a writer, to face. How do you negotiate the line between “unnecessarily complex” and “challenging,” between “thought-provoking” and “mind-boggling,” between “informative” and “pretentious?” How do you carve out a journalistic, or academic, or literary, or marketing space that shows the reader he’s welcome, but offers him more than just a comfortable fluff read he’ll forget in 5 minutes?
Recently, my co-worker Daniel Ford wrote a post on “dumbing down” content for readers. He argues that, “in an effort to engage as many readers as possible, content managers have gotten into the habit of doing what is easy to generate more hits.”
These “easy” things include using simple words and phrases, avoiding lesser known vocabulary, keeping posts short and accessible to limited attention-spans, and, overall, just making it all too “easy” on the reader.
Daniel challenges content creators to write long posts, “be Shakespearian in your prose,” use words people won’t know, and aim to rise above the wants of “some Internet peon with an itchy mouse finger [who just] wants to click through to the next pop culture apocalypse.”
The problem with Daniel’s manifesto is not the cry for quality, but the dangerous assumption that good work is difficult work—and that every piece of content should be treated with the same gloves. Just like people, every piece of content is different. The demands and objectives of cereal box copy are quite different than the demands of a Twitter account than the demands of corporate website copy than the demands of this blog. Quality is a sticky, permeable concept, and it isn’t measured by page length, syllable count, or how serious you can look while reading a blog post.
Daniel wants there to be a grand pressure on the reader, because as we all know, pressure makes diamonds. And I agree—a challenge is great—without challenges our world would lie listless in a crippling static—but, realistically, one must remember that content creation is a job as well as a relationship—and if we alienate our readers to “prove [our] smarts,” to borrow a phrase from Daniel, we’re failing at our job, and ending relationships principal to our purpose.
Marketing is not just a task, it’s a dedication. I think if we really want to reach people, we have to understand them, and be willing to compromise (as much as we can without diluting our message so much that it becomes slime lining the walls of the well of bad content.) While we owe it to the reader to give our best work, we also owe it to readers to be realistic and understanding. Not everyone has the time or inclination to look up words like “omphaloskepsis” or “eudaemonic,” just like not everyone wants to hang out with the guy who’s always telling you you’re pronouncing “encyclopedia” wrong. This doesn’t mean someone’s “dumb,” just absorbed with other concerns. Merge your concerns with the reader’s concerns and create a healthy partnership.
By all means, don’t just phone it in. But don’t herald yourself over your reader either. I love a good long article, but I’ve read some magical pieces of writing that have hardly taken up my iPhone screen. I love learning new words, but I still get kicks from the meaty goodness of a simple word like “raw,” or the ending punch of “tricky.”
My challenge to content creators would not be to write “harder,” but to write “closer”—with more care, a more intimate understanding of your subject, your goals, your readers. Think, and think a lot. Think about your readers—their concerns, their needs, their wants. Think about your platform. What works there? A sassy joke, a reassuring list, a long-form probe into the history of government entitlements? There is a place for all of these things, and choosing one over the other isn’t “smart” or “dumb,” but merely conscientious.
There is a time and a place for simple, a time and a place for complex, a time and a place for silly. But there is never a time for completely impenetrable. And there is never a time for unfair or demeaning. Because who wants to deal with someone who thinks they are a part of “the most common intellectual denominator?” Writing hard is easy; writing careful is not.