Can You Write Shorter and Simpler?

As shocking as it might be to some writers, not everybody reads regularly.

In fact, most stop reading books after they’ve left school. It’s questionable whether some even started.

Many would suggest that TV and other modern distractions are causing literacy levels to drop.

If reading levels are falling, will writing standards have to as well?

Last week it was announced that the reading age of the UK’s school children hadn’t improved since the 1950s.

With manufacturing and other industries uprooting and heading East, it’s hardly surprising that the government has desperately poured £500 million into trying to create a more literate future workforce.

However, the failure to get more children hooked on books is an entrenched problem that’s going to be difficult to shift.

£6 billion is already being spent on a similar scheme aimed at the UK’s adult workforce. It’s believed that half (16 million) have a reading age that’s little better than that of an 11 year old upon leaving primary school, worrying indeed if your future lies in trying to build a nationwide high-tech service industry to rival China.

The US might also be facing a similar problem because last week Bob Bly questioned ‘Is Reading Dead?’ in response to the suggestion that the average 15 to 19 year old reads for less than ten minutes at weekends.

But it’s not just teenagers that are struggling to find the time or inclination to bury their nose in a novel.

Brian Clark’s ‘Teaching Sells’ course is geared around converting educational literature into easily digestible chunks.

People are getting so book shy that they’re prepared to pay to be spoon fed knowledge, rather than brave their local library.

If the collapse of reading skills becomes a pandemic then internet writing is the form most likely to survive.

Web surfers scan words and have the attention spans of goldfish, so writing for the web already has to be concise, and you have to keep it short and simple, if you want to get your message across.

Long words and sentences the size of paragraphs are a literary species best suited to the offline world, and could become endangered if adequate reading levels can’t be sustained.

If people aren’t reading and getting less adept at processing words with their brains, will writers eventually have to start simplifying their language?

Are you going to have to start eliminating four syllable words from your vocabulary altogether? And wielding an axe to every sentence that can survive the trauma of being split in two?

I think such an apocalyptic vision for western writers is still a long way off.

But it might be a good idea to start learning Chinese just in case.

[If you’ve found this post of interest then I hope you might consider nominating The Copywriter’s Crucible for Michael Stelzner’s shortlist for this year’s best blogs for writers. I somehow smuggled my way into the shortlist last year, but didn’t quite have enough momentum to break into the final ten. Hopefully, with your support, this year I can go all the way]

8 Comments. Leave new

Hm…I detected a few four-syllable words in this post…guess you’d better get out your editor’s axe 🙂

Thanks for the nomination for Michael Steizner’s list, by the way! I returned the favor. Keep up the great posts!

Hello Matt

I really enjoyed and agree with your article on writing shorter and simpler. I am a Creative Recruiter for Organic.com please take a look at our blog http://threeminds.organic.com and let me know what you think.

Shondra Weill
Senior Recruiter

Hi Jennifer,

I use a range of tools for editing my writing: an ice pick, a surgeon’s knife and frequently, when sentences get too bloated, a heavy axe.

Thanks for your support, although I think there’s some stiff competition again this year which will hold me off the top.

Hi Shondra,

I’m glad you like the post because I gave my imagination a bit more rope to run with than usual, and hoped people wouldn’t take it too literally.

Matt.

You’re mixing the ideas of literacy and reading books. I’m not sure whether literacy, meaning the ability to read, is dropping or not. But you quote an article that says the reading level of UK children has remained constant. It doesn’t say it’s dropped.

And in the US, there’s this: “According to the 1999 National Household Education Survey, 50% of the population aged 25 and over read a newspaper at least once a week, read one or more magazines regularly, and had read a book in the past 6 months.”
http://www.nifl.gov/nifl/facts/reading_facts.html#sadults

And this: “The largest increase in the Trade category came from Juvenile hardbound books, which rose at a compound growth rate of 19.6 percent from 2002 to 2005.”
http://www.publishers.org/industry/index.cfm

I agree with your point that writers should write simply. But that’s just good communication. Whether reading trends are downward is another matter entirely and I haven’t seen statistics to support it.

You have to be careful about this issue because when you ask people if they “read,” they might say no. But I’m guessing many people read all day long … reports, memos, e-mail, blogs, online newspapers, print newspapers, mail, catalogs, etc. People just don’t consider that to be “reading,” which is generally interpreted to mean reading for pleasure — novels and such.

If you ask me if I read much, I’ll likely say no. But in my copywriting business, I’m reading all day long. It’s just related to business and not necessarily related to printed “books.”

Hi Dean,

This post was more speculatory then based on any hard evidence, and I was just trying to build a post around recent news stories on literacy levels, and hopefully provoke a few comments along the way.

I think the point I was trying to make was that as more of the wider UK population starts spending more time on the internet you’re going to encounter more people with lower reading ages. Half of the UK’s workforce is believed to have a reading age of only 11 so adjusting your copy for a wider demographic might be an issue in the future.

In terms of the reading age staying the same – the problem the UK faces is that it no longer has a healthy manufacturing industry and has to be able to raise skill levels and create new industries if the economy isn’t going to stagnate. This means overall literacy levels must be raised, which is proving to be a difficult task. I haven’t seen any hard evidence that suggests they’re falling apart from some social commentators continuing to blame the internet and TV for softening people’s brains.

I know I personally used to read a lot, but now, like you, I spend all day reading online and don’t read for pleasure half as much as I used to. Something I keep intending to change (if I could just switch off my laptop).

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment and adding to the conversation.

Matt.

Hi Matt,

There are lots of problems with childhood literacy and often it starts with the parents not having the ability to read the children’s bedtime stories and instill a love of reading.

It’s partly due to forcing children to attend school too early, particularly for boys.

On the copywriting side of things, for shorter copy I have to admire all James Brausch’s sales pages are seriously short, it’s either take it or leave it. Maybe because he’s established himself so well already that he can get away with it.

best regards

Gavin

Hi Gavin,

In the news today it was reported that the UK’s children have fallen outside of the world’s top ten rankings for literacy levels. I’m bracing myself for more stories of this nature in the years to come.

Matt.

I’m using an online reading program with my son called http://www.headsprout.com. He ‘s 4 and 2 months now and we have been doing it for about 5 months, it’s more like a game than a reading program. I’ve been very impressed with it so far.

My partner is a headteacher and you’d be amazed at exactly how shit some parents are.

Gavin

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