Web Content: Is Simpler Better?

Read with Dick and JaneWhile perusing an article about improving one’s writing for the web, I encountered the following passage:

“Simpler writing helps everyone. I was stunned to learn that 43% of people in the US read at a lower level of literacy. Meaning they read more slowly than average and have more difficulty understanding what they read.

“Simpler writing — meaning fewer words per sentence and fewer syllables per word —  benefits everyone. Reading speed and comprehension increase enormously, even for high literacy readers. When you consider the time saved, and the greater satisfaction people feel when they can understand and make decisions more easily, it’s a no-brainer to take the time to simplify your copy.”

Using the term “no-brainer” in this context rankles. The thrust of this excerpt is that literacy is on the wane, so web content creators should dumb-down their copy accordingly. The premise that lowering the language bar “benefits everyone” is patently false and more than a little alarming. It may benefit marketers, but it sure doesn’t benefit readers.

I belong to a generation that was weaned on the prescriptive style edicts of Strunk and White, so I completely understand how lean composition can increase clarity and impact. Effective as it is, the technique can be misunderstood and abused. Taken to extremes, this canon would yield grade-school drivel (“See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!”) rather than robust, punchy Hemingwayesque prose — which is what Messrs. Strunk and White had in mind. According to S&W, the concept is to “Make every word tell.” Clear, correct, and concise are very good rules of thumb; clarity always trumps cleverness. But enhanced reader experience is predicated on many factors — diction, pacing, tone, and organization, to name a few. Language that resonates with your chosen audience depends on mastering the craft of the well-turned phrase. That’s why good writing is an art.

This trend toward dull, explicit, overly simplistic writing sets a vicious circle in motion initiating, indeed encouraging, a race to the bottom. If we deliver increasingly dumbed-down content, our readers’ ability to think critically and appreciate good writing will decline in turn. How on earth does that benefit anyone, let alone everyone?

Rather than assuming your readers can only handle a monosyllabic vocabulary and flaccid, lifeless prose, why not give them the benefit of the doubt? Your mission: compose content that is appropriate for the target audience and well written. The alternative smacks of disrespect and condescension.

If we, as digital content creators and editors, are concerned about the increase in illiteracy — and we certainly should be — we must accept our responsibility to be part of the solution rather than purveyors of the problem. So by all means, trim the fat from your online content, but do it to achieve clarity and improve communication, not because you assume your readers are dullards and dimwits.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.


Your thoughts?