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quietspirit

The Dumbing Down of Readers

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Late this afternoon, the writing group to which  I belong met. Last time we met. I had related an experience I had when I used an online editing site.

The site told me my writing was verbose, too wordy. 

 

One of the others found a book and brought it to our meeting today. Written in 1950, by a very intellectual man, the preface had one paragraph that contained two extremely long sentences. She had taken that paragraph and broke it down by sentences. It seemed like each of the two sentences could have been broken down into at least five shorter sentences. She thought that readers are being "dumbed down." What do you, as present day writers think of this idea?

Edited by quietspirit
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There are a number of readability formulas that give a rough feel for different pieces of writing. One very popular one is the Gunning Fog Index. There are websites where you can paste in a piece of your writing, and get a measurement. In some places, you can get a count of the offending parameters, e.g., words of 3 or more syllables, average length of sentences, etc.. Different publications will use different fog indices, with a Reader's Digest using a more challenging level than, say, People Magazine.

 

Since both of these publications have existed simultaneously for a long time, I'm not sure that a single book, or even a group of books from a particular era, are going to give a good indication. Somewhere though, there will have to be studies on how/if some baseline Fog Index has been changing over time. That would be a good place to start looking.

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I think it all depends on who your reading audience is.

From simple to complex: Children books , Young Adult, etc..

And the type of genre: Fiction,  Non-fiction, technical, etc.

 

 

Edited by Bob Leone
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17 hours ago, quietspirit said:

readers are being "dumbed down." What do you, as present day writers think of this idea?

Though we should write to our audience, I too believe there has been a dumbing down over the years. I once heard a story about a professor at a law school who required all of his college students to read "The Federalist Papers" and inevitably each year some of the students would come to him and complain about how difficult it was to read "The Federalist Papers". His only response to them would be something along the lines of: "The Federalist Papers were written to the laymen of New York - the common person off the street. Hopefully, one day you will be able to attain to their academic prowess."  As a teacher, I have seen our expectations of our students continue to drop year after year. 

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I'm not sure about dumbed down. I tend to see it as terminally ignorant. I'm amazed at the things they've never heard of. I tend to write it off as the exceedingly small amount of actual content in the public schools. I mean, no geometry?! And it goes on from there.

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In the 1970s, the Wall Street Journal was written at a 9th grade level, and most other newspapers were written at a 7th grade level. Very few people needed a reading level above 10th grade, because scientific/medical journals were written at that level. (I was going to college to become a high school English teacher, so this is stuff we had to memorize for the tests.)

 

At the turn of the century, I looked it up again. WSJ was down to 7th grade, WaPo, NYT, and most "normal" newspapers were down to 5th grade reading level. (Then, Philly had two papers created by the same business. Our "normal" one, which was 5th grade reading level, and then out "sports paper" written at 3rd grade. Then again, one-third of Philadelphians are business-illiterate, and our public school system only demands a 4th grade reading level to graduate high school.) No telling how low it is now.

 

BUT, that's not all bad news. I was a student of Dr. Richard Mitchell, and firmly believe we should use smaller words when they work. (That's use, not utilize. 😉) And, I have made it a point to write in plain English. I can do hoity-toity if needed, but I tend to avoid the hoity-toity crowd, so rarely need it. (Sometimes listen to lawyer friends, but they don't have to change their vocabulary for me, usually. Sometimes a meaning is required.) And since I do write for 2nd-5th graders, (MG), absolutely no need to talk down to them. They talk my levels.

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On 2/12/2020 at 4:31 PM, davidbergsland said:

I tend to write it off as the exceedingly small amount of actual content in the public schools. I mean, no geometry?!

I agree. I have some stories as a teacher that would make any parent's blood curdle. 

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There's also a collateral problem. I have a son-in-law who graduated with a business degree. He can read, but he hates it. So he reads nothing. all videos. What do we call that? I can think of a few, but not here.🤯

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2 hours ago, davidbergsland said:

I have a son-in-law who graduated with a business degree. He can read, but he hates it. So he reads nothing. all videos. What do we call that?

 

I don't know if I'd consider that something bad. People learn differently. I often learn better visually vs. written. Can't tell you how many times I have gone to Youtube to learn how to do something. Sure, I could read the instructions, or the book, but watching someone do it  has a far bigger impact on my understanding.  

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On 2/13/2020 at 6:06 PM, davidbergsland said:

There's also a collateral problem. I have a son-in-law who graduated with a business degree. He can read, but he hates it. So he reads nothing. all videos. What do we call that? I can think of a few, but not here.🤯

I grew up in the time of books, so immediately think all learning comes through books.

 

Then there were two things I tried to learn through books that couldn't work because it takes 1-2 years to publish a book and the info changed too quickly. SEO and coding for websites. (Ends up, I don't have a brain for coding anyway.)

 

Business changes often too, so it may well be something that requires videos. (Although, as bad as business has gotten in the last couple of decades, I think he could easily become a CEO if he studied business books -- there's always audio -- from the first half of the 20th century.)

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In my experience, yes and no.

 

I tend to agree with davidbergsland, it's more ignorance than anything, sometimes willful.

 

However, I do see more and more students with learning disabilities. Some due to laziness and parental "lawnmowing". Other increasingly due to circumstances out of their control, though I think it's the exception rather than the rule.

 

To illustrate a case for the former, when I student-taught at our local public high school, we had a student whose handwriting was illegible, which affected his notetaking and test scores respectively. The solution? Teachers were to print out the notes for him as specified by his IEP. In other words they gave him a wheel chair instead of teaching him to use his legs. IEPs are meant to aid, but they are increasingly used to coddle.

 

Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 50,000+ words. Our modern vocabulary is 3,000 at best. Not surprising when considering texting, educational coddling, and increasing parental disengagement.

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On 2/13/2020 at 8:36 PM, Accord64 said:

 

I don't know if I'd consider that something bad. People learn differently. I often learn better visually vs. written. Can't tell you how many times I have gone to Youtube to learn how to do something. Sure, I could read the instructions, or the book, but watching someone do it  has a far bigger impact on my understanding.  

True, but by in large the smartest people I know read all the time...and not just wordy dribble. There have been studies showing that children who spend more than 2 hours daily watching TV experience slowed cognitive development. Granted, one can find a study to prove anything they wish, but it's certainly something we can't ignore.

 

We have a sect of religious separatists in the county. They are not permitted to watch tv/movies/play video games etc. Those kids are often the brightest students. Not definitive proof I know, but again, a major factor.

Edited by RockyMtn Gal
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14 minutes ago, RockyMtn Gal said:

To illustrate a case for the former, when I student-taught at our local public high school, we had a student whose handwriting was illegible, which affected his notetaking and test scores respectively. The solution? Teachers were to print out the notes for him as specified by his IEP. In other words they gave him a wheel chair instead of teaching him to use his legs. IEPs are meant to aid, but they are increasingly used to coddle.

 

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As a parent of a child who has learning disabilities, and went through school under an IEP, I'd strongly caution you about making such generalizations. Often "teaching him to walk" means starting out with a wheelchair, and sometimes a wheelchair is all they can hope for. Each case is different. That's the point of an IEP. 

 

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18 minutes ago, Accord64 said:

 

1306056864_giphy(18).gif.d8fb3d5e549540846521452ed6717c79.gif

 

As a parent of a child who has learning disabilities, and went through school under an IEP, I'd strongly caution you about making such generalizations. Often "teaching him to walk" means starting out with a wheelchair, and sometimes a wheelchair is all they can hope for. Each case is different. That's the point of an IEP. 

 

Preaching to the choir.

 

My point was not to argue for or against IEPs...but since you brought it up...

 

To restate: My point was that IEPs etc. are being increasingly used in a manner that hampers more than helps. Employing the previous analogy, no one, myself included, would argue that a paraplegic doesn't need a wheelchair.

However, I'm sure we can agree that it would be silly to keep someone in a wheelchair who can walk...even if they need a little help at first.

This was the case for the aforementioned student. He couldn't read his writing because he wasn't made to write...nor was anyone helping him to improve.

 

I am truly glad your child's accommodations helped, and were properly employed. 

 

Now, back to the topic at hand.

 

 

 

 

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On 2/11/2020 at 2:34 PM, Jared Williams said:

Though we should write to our audience, I too believe there has been a dumbing down over the years. I once heard a story about a professor at a law school who required all of his college students to read "The Federalist Papers" and inevitably each year some of the students would come to him and complain about how difficult it was to read "The Federalist Papers". His only response to them would be something along the lines of: "The Federalist Papers were written to the laymen of New York - the common person off the street. Hopefully, one day you will be able to attain to their academic prowess."  As a teacher, I have seen our expectations of our students continue to drop year after year. 

I have mine memorize the Declaration of Independence. Granted, it was directed to the king, and parliament, but still. You wouldn't believe the hoops we have to jump through to help students understand it.

Actually, nevermind. You would.

Edited by RockyMtn Gal
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This thread has been on my mind so much, I wrote a blog entry about it. It really is a bit scary, in the book, "Original Intent" by David Barton, he had a bunch of charts showing years from early 1930's or 40's and going on through like the 1990's (without it in front of me, I don't remember exactly) - and it had a target line over 1963 (the year after they took prayer out of schools). The title of these graphs were along the lines of "crime rates" "single-parent households" "std's" and so forth. Each one skyrocketed exactly at the marked date. Then there was one more, "SAT scores", and they plummeted. 

 

12 minutes ago, RockyMtn Gal said:

Actually, nevermind. You would.

Lol.

 

as a math teacher, I was literally told I had to give my students calculators. My first year, I found that over half my freshmen Algebra students had never seen how to divide by hand, no less that you could even do it. But I made sure it didn't stay that way!

 

...but I digress.. I could tell stories for days. 

Edited by Jared Williams
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As someone who struggled in math, and was advanced despite my utter and complete ignorance of the material,

 

God bless you!

 

(Luckily I ended up with teachers in high school who did as you did. But it was a rough go till then)

 

 

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I think there's a larger issue that's being missed in this discussion. We can assess that readers these days are dumbing down, terminally ignorant, etc., and then debate all the causes. But as writers, what does this mean? Do we wring our hands, complain, share depressing stories, or do we find a way to adapt to reach our audience?

 

Maybe it's just the business side of me, but I personally don't think it's a good idea to talk about my audience (customers) in a way they can only see as insulting. I mean really, if you were a reader and came across this topic, how would you feel?

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36 minutes ago, Accord64 said:

or do we find a way to adapt to reach our audience

 

Sure! 

Any suggestions that you believe would help the reader without compromising quality?

Edited by RockyMtn Gal
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23 minutes ago, RockyMtn Gal said:

Any suggestions that you believe would help the reader without compromising quality?

 

Interesting way you posed that question. Makes me wonder if I suggest something like using smaller, more common words, you'd consider that a compromise of quality.

 

I think suggestions can be numerous, which would also depend on genre. For instance, YA seems to favor a first person, present tense writing style. I personally find that difficult to read, and resist writing that way. Does that mean I can dismiss that suggestion? Sure, if I don't write YA, or don't want my next YA novel to sell. 

 

I don't think compromising quality is the real issue here, mainly because quality is always an underlying goal. I think the real issue is mindset. It's clear that several here are frustrated over current reading trends. I'm not going to argue if it's a legitimate frustration or not. Rather, I think we need to find a way to accept it, understand it better, and adjust, or we'll struggle to reach an audience.       

 

 

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2 hours ago, Accord64 said:

Makes me wonder if I suggest something like using smaller, more common words, you'd consider that a compromise of 

 

Instead of wondering, and making wrong assumptions, try asking. 

 

I regards to your question, and suggestions, I don't believe that "smaller" or "common" words necessarily compromise quality, although they could depending on the circumstance. 

The "dumbing down" of readers can't be reduced to the lack of vocabulary, but it is still a major factor. I see a lot of terribly executed themes, watered down plots, and poor character development as major factors along with poor word choice. 

 

That being said, I've also read novels lacking in eloquence, but excellently written. 

 

While I agree with you that dismissing this won't sell novels (or solve the problem), shouldn't we at least try to elevate the reader while taking this into account? Shouldn't that be part of the adaptation instead of just accepting it because "That's just the way it is"? 

Maybe that's just the teacher in me.

 

Also, just because it sells, doesn't mean it's quality. As Christians, quality is what we should strive for. 

 

 

 

Anyway, that is more the intent of my question, and that's why I asked when you suggested we complain less, seeking a way to do something about it and hoping you had some ideas. 

 

Still willing to listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by RockyMtn Gal
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I find that there is a certain beauty to simplicity.  Like the artist who drew a perfect circle freehand, to show their skill.  That being said, writing is like cooking.  No one wants a cake that is super sickly sweet, and no one wants to be eating flavorless hardtack every day, all day.  They want sweet and salty, sweet and spicy,-salty-spicy-earthy...you get the general idea,  Like cooking, writing a paragraph requires variety.

 

I'll never forget reading Eragon.  Everyone was touting that book, mainly because it was written by a kid.  Although it was technically good, each and every sentence had the same cadence over, and over, and over...and over again.  It was so redundant that I put the book away after three chapters.  By the second chapter, I was almost begging for a run-on, or a truncated statement - anything to kill the monotony.

 

I tend to write a lot of run-ons, that I go back and fix in a polish pass.  Some of them I keep.  The last thing I want a reader to do is to hear that steady, monotonous "drip, drip, drip," of uniformity in every sentence I write.

 

(Of course, they made a movie out of Eragon.  I've yet to get published.  Take that for what it is...)

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