In my editing capstone class in college, I learned about something called popularization. Essentially, it means taking a highly technical piece of writing and adapting it to be more understandable for a general audience. On the day we studied this topic, this happened just before we took our mid-period break:
Professor (paraphrased): "When you come back, we'll work on popularizing this article: 'Microentrepreneurship and Job Creation: A Multiple-Case Study of HUD Microenterprise Development Assistance Programs in Upstate New York.'"
Professor (chuckling): "Please come back."
Being the intrepid editing students we were, we did as he asked. And we survived. 🙂
Some writing theorists argue that an author should always use words that capture precisely what they mean, whether or not the audience will recognize a given word. "Readers can look things up," these theorists say. "In fact, it's good for them. Don't dumb down your writing."
Now, I'm a fan of precision. But unless I'm working on an article for an academic or professional journal, I take issue with the idea that "big words and jargon" = "prestigious" and "common words" = "dumbed down."
This excellent article by Shane Snow gives an overview of reading-level analysis, a process that evaluates how hard it is to read and understand a given text. There are several different ways to calculate this, but in general, the higher the reading level, the more difficult the text is to understand.
Some of you might say, "Well, that's good, isn't it? Most of us are writing for adults, not kids. And aren't authors supposed to provide intellectual experiences with their writing?"
These are some good points. The trick is that most of us are writing for a general audience of adults--and according to Snow, those people don't read nearly as well as we might expect. Specifically, 50 percent of American adults can read only at or below an eighth-grade level. Even though Snow's article was published in 2015, I suspect that percentage is still accurate and will remain so for a while. After all, when I taught sixth-grade history in 2016-17, about two-thirds of my one hundred-ish students could read at only a second- or third-grade level. (There were a lot of problems in that school system.)
To complicate things, I suspect that we writers often live on a different literary plane than most people. There are a few reasons for that:
We tend to read better than the average person. (I find that people who read well are much more likely to write outside of school/work than people who struggle to read.)
Because we read better, we enjoy reading more and thus do more of it than the average person.
The more we read, the more words and ways of expressing ourselves we get exposed to.
Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery; it's also the first step to mastery. Thus, as we write our own pieces, we mimic the styles and diction of what we've read.
Over time, without even thinking about it, we begin to write increasingly complex material.
I think it's human nature to unconsciously assume, "I can read/understand this. Why can't everyone else?"
My point is that we may be writing over our readers' heads without even realizing it. Remember the three goals of writing? We can't even accomplish the first one (getting readers to know something about our topic) if our audience can't understand us.
So how can we tell whether our intended audiences will be able to "get" what we're trying to tell them? Here are some ideas:
If possible, have someone else read your work before you publish. Choose a person who has a similar education level to that of the people you're trying to reach. For example, if you're writing an article for young adults about how to choose their first car, you might not want to choose a test reader who's been designing cars for twenty years.
Try running your piece through an electronic readability test. I like this one because it uses multiple measures of readability, gives you some details about what each measure evaluates in your work, and gives you both a score from each measure and an overall score.
Work with an experienced editor like yours truly. 😉 Ensuring readability is a big part of substantive editing, which is one of my services. Click here to learn more about it.
(Thanks to Anna Samoylova for sharing their work on Unsplash.)