OK, that’s a snarky headline. But I’ve read a number of online writing guides that seem designed to dumb down texts and keep readers limited. More than that, they’re designed to stifle the authentic and unique writers’ voices we always encourage. .
The latest recommendations on writing for the web tell us, courtesy of the Content Marketing Institute, that sentences should be less than ten words long, never complex, and contain no words over two syllables — in other words, understandable for a sixth grade reading level. There are tools to check your finished piece to be sure that this is so.
Now, there’s a kernel of truth to this. The primo rule in writing for an audience is not to put barriers between the reader and the message. You don’t want your reader to have to stop and untangle convoluted sentences or reach for a dictionary to understand every other word. But these kinds of recommendations, which you’ll find on any number of writing sites, create a kind of information pabulum, in which everything sounds the same and readers never get a glimpse of any of the other spiffy goodies that the language has to offer, brought to you by the dedicated wordsmiths who work hard at their craft.
It’s a tired cliché: keep it simple, stupid. But that has the disadvantage of keeping the stupid (or in this case, the uninformed) simple. Readers who only see words of two syllables or less may never know –or use – the many wondrous polysyllabics out there. And writers heeding the equally ubiquitous advice to speak in an authentic voice — be yourself, be unique – may end up burying those voices under careful word and syllable counts.
One reason I’m in awe of the Net is its stunning power to put all kinds of information at anyone’s fingertips, any time. It’s the primary source of information about the world, for most of the world. And that places a certain responsibility on those of us who create that information. We’ve got to give quality, drawing on the complexity and richness of the language to open readers’ eyes to new things and help them make sense of this vast and constantly changing universe.
The old saw applies: know your audience. Know your voice and be fearless in the use of same. Know your tools and use them with skill. Traveling the information highway should be a smooth ride in a brand new Lexus – not a toy car.