Do You Need to Dumb Down Your Writing to Reach a Wider Audience?

James Logie
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Henry Ford said that when you sell to the classes, you eat with the masses, and when you sell to the masses, you eat with the classes.

What he’s saying is that the audience you target can determine whether you eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant or McDonalds.

The wider the audience, the more success — and we can take this same approach to writing and creativity.

If you write for the elite, it may mean Taco Bell for dinner, but if you write for a much wider audience — you can dine with those better off.

It’s not that you need to neglect any aspect of your writing — but do you have to anguish over every single aspect of it?

Do you need to dumb down your writing to reach a wider audience? Well, you might.

Not surprisingly, literacy rates are not great — and they’re only getting worse.

What does this mean for your writing? Are you off the hook for creating line after line of elegant content — or can you let some things slide?

What does the data say regarding literacy rates, and how should you apply it to your own writing? Let’s dive into this.

The data regarding literacy seems dated because it comes from way back in 2012.

However, the Program for International Assessment of Adult Contempencies — or PIAAC — takes these global snapshots every ten years; so it’s some of the best data available right now.

This gigantic report has some updates as of 2014 and 2016 as released by the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The study looks at adult literacy and compares it internationally.

What are some findings that are most notable? The first is that the average American reads at a 7th to 8th-grade reading level.

Many newspapers are written with this in mind and remember: this is the average.

According to the research, 4% of Americans are nonliterate. This doesn’t mean they can’t read, but they can’t read well enough to perform activities of daily living in modern society.

This means that not only aren’t they reading the New Yorker, but this nonliteracy can be dangerous when it comes to understanding labels or avoiding harmful substances.

How has this changed writing?

If you want to attract a wider audience — you may have to simplify your writing.

Nearly 34% of the public have basic literacy skills.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development states that half of U.S. adults can’t read a book written at the 8th-grade level.

If you’re reading this, then you don’t have the same problem that a large percentage of the public struggles with.

As writers, we want to hold ourselves to a higher standard — and hope that readers do, too. But how high should the standard of writing be?

According to the PIAAC research, only 2% of global adults read at the top level.

This 2% is still many people, but it gets harder and harder to stand out with the vast amount of content vying for people's attention.

This comes back to the Henry Ford example: when you write for this small audience, you miss out on a much larger percentage of readers.

What this information reveals is that if you want to attract the largest audience, you need to write in that sweet spot of a 7th to 8th-grade reading level.

So, what should this look like?

How to shape your writing’s direction

Can you write to appeal to both audiences? How do you target the mass majority of readers? Can you keep things short and snappy?

Can you draw people in with a quick sentence like this? How about one like this?

Or do you need to include more elaborate sentences that appeal to those with a greater appreciation for the written word, sentences that change up the flow of your writing, and break up the shorter ones used around it?

A mix of both is good, but ultimately, it’s a good idea to keep things short and to the point. And keep things simple. Elaborate words may seem ideal, but a simple word is better.

Shorter paragraphs also appeal to the average reader. Smaller ones like this make it easier to navigate the text.

But it’s also a good idea to include variety in the flow of your writing.

If you write for the internet (as most of us do) you understand that people skim as much as they read.

Headlines and bullet points are great for breaking up the text and getting to the core of an article.

The importance of readability

People are busy and rarely have time to consume the overabundance of content out there. We are drowning in content and it comes at us from all angles.

Articles like this are most often read on phones and tablets, and most people scroll through them looking for key takeaways instead of consuming the entire thing.

The U.S. government has actually looked into this issue of scrolling. They found that people scan web pages and only read about 18% of what’s there.

‘Users,’ (the term used to describe readers) scan pages in an ‘F-pattern.’ They focus on the top left side of the page, headings, and the first few words of a sentence or list.

On average, these ‘users’ only read the first two words on each line. Did you read this sentence right through? You're now considered an above-average user.

And if you only read the first two words, you’re not even reading this anyway so I can say whatever I want here… purple monkey dishwasher.

This means readability is paramount.

Readability is more about accessibility — and primarily web accessibility.

Since the average person struggles with reading, you can help them by keeping sentences and paragraphs shorter, and words simpler.

When you don’t consider readability, you may discriminate — and alienate — a large majority of people who struggle with this.

Giant blocks of text, extended sentences, and overcomplicated words quickly repel most readers.

Some online readers can fly through articles, while others (the majority it turns out) take a lot of time to go through it; if they even get that far into your writing.

A best practice is to include your most important information at the beginning and end of an article. That way, it has a better chance of being seen.

Final thoughts

Ihate to be a doomsayer, but I feel it’s safe to say that these statistics could get worse the next time they do a global study regarding literacy.

I hope for the best, but stats like this often go downhill instead of up. With most content continuing to be consumed on devices — I wouldn’t bet on literacy rates climbing.

Those who do read, don’t want to read at their grade level, and reading skills diminish over time.

Add to that how much more distracted we’ve become — and our dependence on technology — and it doesn’t look good for the future of literacy.

But you still need to find your audience, as people will continue to read. But who will these readers be, and what will they look like?

It can take time to figure out who your audience is, and what they like best. The important thing is to continue to create — and create a lot.

The longer you write, the easier it becomes to identify who your writing resonates with.

This doesn’t happen overnight, but when you create that wide body of work, you see what works and what doesn’t.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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