Writing for the Masses

I’m taking a break from the Transdisciplinary Skills series for the day. A friend got me thinking about something over the weekend, and I think it’s worth sharing here.

Among his various jobs, someone I know writes for children’s shows. He was worrying the other night that he might find his scripts heavily changed because he was trying to give kids credit for being able to understand things, and his work might be perceived as beyond their ability to understand. I understood what he was trying to do and why he was worried, and it got me thinking about my own job, where one of my responsibilities is to teach academic writing.

Writing teachers spend so much time encouraging children to create complex sentence structures as their understanding of grammar grows. We ask them to make strong word choices in their writing, encouraging vocabulary development and higher levels of readability. We push them to write to their level or beyond.

Then we turn them out into a world that says, “Wow! You are a fantastic writer. But this will go right over everyone’s head. You need to use simpler sentence structures. You need to use simpler words.” Several years of writing training goes out the window as these fabulous young writers are asked to go back to the work they were doing when we first taught them the different types of verbs.

What I’ve often wondered is: Why? What’s wrong with pushing the envelope? What’s wrong with encouraging people to exercise skills as adults that we forced them to learn as children? Why not expect and encourage people to be intelligent, to be able to process those things that their schooling supposedly made them ready for?

I know what part of the problem is, but I think you get farther talking up to someone than talking down to them. I see it with my students all the time, even the ones who feel stupid or behind. I don’t simplify my language for any but my very youngest students, and I expect my students to engage their vocabulary, too. (It drives them crazy when they start swearing and I tell them they’re too educated to fall back on such vague words before making them go back and select more specific words.) Plus, it’s fairly insulting to start out by assuming people aren’t smart enough to handle something.

My point is, smarter writing should be encouraged always. When you lay out a challenging expectation, it’s amazing how often people, regardless of their age, will rise to meet it.

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