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[Reality Check] - The Dumbing Down of America: "Am I Part of the Problem?" by Patricia Robertson
Written by
Zetta Brown
August 2014
Written by
Zetta Brown
August 2014

When I was a little brat in elementary school, English class was called "Language Arts." As a kid, I didn't even know what "language arts" meant until I reached middle school where it was simply called English class. 

I wondered why the powers-that-be called it "Language Arts" in the first place. "English class" was simple, to the point, and told you what to expect. Why sugar coat it, especially when kids like me (at the time) hated it?

Now I realize that perhaps the powers-that-be had a good idea with that name. Language is an art and can be very artistic. 

Words can be altered and arranged to be short and sweet, long and verbose, or somewhere in between.Having a varied vocabulary suggests that you are well-read and educated. But, like with many things, if you don't use it, you can lose it.

Those of us who have been to writing conferences or studied writing, whether formally or informally, have heard many "rules" when it comes to writing and what should and shouldn't be done.

But is it law? Have those words of advice helped or hurt us over the years when it comes to not just our writing, but to what and how we read? Have we been conditioned--brainwashed--into thinking that certain forms of writing trumps everything else despite the fact that words and language can be formed in countless ways?

Patricia Robertson is an author, teacher, and wordsmith, but she has a very interesting confession to make. She believes that she may have been contributing to the problem.

Be sure to comment below and tell is what you think.


The Dumbing Down of America: Am I Part of the Problem?
By Patricia Robertson

When I was younger, I prided myself on having the common touch, writing and speaking for your average person. Even though I had a large vocabulary from my years of devouring books, I purposely chose not to use that vocabulary lest I sound like I was putting on airs or trying to appear better or smarter than others.

I have done this for years, so much so that my vocabulary has shrunk proportionately. It seems that others have done the same thing as the vocabulary of your average American has shrunk as well.

At a writer’s conference two years ago, I was instructed when picking between two words to choose the one that was simpler and more easily understood, don’t embellish, and at all costs, avoid adverbs. This is what publishers want and what readers want. They don’t want long, complicated sentences and complex word structures that require too much thinking.

I have basically told my students the same thing in regards to writing assignments. I tell them I want clear and concise writing. Don’t beat around the bush, don’t throw a lot of metaphors at me, show me you know what you are writing about and explain it in plain English. There are advantages to this, yet still I find myself wondering about this dumbing down process and how much I have contributed to it.

Most recently I’ve been told what an easily distractible community we have become, powered in part by the Internet. We are an ADD nation. People scan through multiple articles on the Internet, never stopping to read more than 500 words before being distracted by another article, or better yet, images—think squirrel or shiny object! Instagram is exploding as people would much rather look at pretty pictures than read a composition. Podcasts seem to be the way of the future. If you want a lot of followers for your blog, write less content and entertain with pictures and videos—hint: cats and dogs make great subject matter if at a loss, or food!

This same mentality is extending to books as well. Readers want to be entertained with fast moving dialogue and action. No long descriptive passages or ruminations in your character’s head, get to the action. The mantra “show don’t tell” has become never tell, just give your reader non-stop movement. We don’t have time for long drawn out sentences or complicated thought patterns that might challenge us to stop and think. And God forbid that our characters have a flashback where they think back over their younger years.

We don’t want to have to wonder or ponder over a story line or think about it much beyond the time we put the book down and are distracted by another colorful object. We have no patience for thinking and reflection. Writers of the classics would never survive in our current world of publishing.

It seems to me I can give publishers what they want and play to the masses, or I can write what I see fit to write and face the possibility that my words will lie forever in obscurity. It’s a challenge.

So, what to do? I’m doing the balancing act of trying to do both. First, I have made a conscious decision to stop my internal editing when teaching and talking to groups and go ahead and use the more complicated word if it fits better. If they don’t know it, they can look it up. This may be their opportunity to learn and expand their vocabulary. This doesn’t mean I inundate with “big” words, just that I don’t automatically search for a simpler word before speaking as I have in the past.

Second, in writing, I plan to use the words and sentence structure that I believe most accurately reflect what I am trying to say. If a simpler format is better, I will go with that, but that will no longer be my default mode.

Third, when teaching, I will continue to tell my students I want clear and concise writing because I am not teaching creative writing but Counseling and Family Studies. Clear and concise is the better way to go here.

It’s a balancing act, trying to be true to the writer in me and also play to the masses. In the process I wonder if I’m doing either well. And so I ask once again, do I dumb down my writing in order to reach more people? And if I do, will I be part of the problem yet again? What do you think?


Patricia Robertson’s first book, Daily Meditations for Busy Moms, is still in print after twenty years. She will be releasing her novel, Dreamweavers, at the end of May. She has a Doctor of Ministry and over thirty years of experience. Her latest novels are Land of Deep Waters, a novel set in Honduras, Central America, and Buying Time: Beating Swords into Plowshares, a novel set during the Cold War era. For more information, check out her website, http://patriciamrobertson.com. She can be emailed at [email protected]


Got a [REALITY CHECK] about the publishing life to share? If you would like to be a guest on my blog, please friend me on She Writes with a message! :)

©2014. Zetta Brown is an editor and the author of several published short stories and the erotic romance novel Messalina: Devourer of Men. She also provides editing services through JimandZetta.com. If you like this post, then stop by her editing blog Zetta’s Desk or Zetta’s House of Random Thoughts.

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  • Pamela Olson

    I know it's a cliche, but instead of deciding between various rules, what I try to live and write by as much as possible is, "Be true to yourself." Be honest and write the clearest version of your own vision. Otherwise you are almost guaranteed to write something that will be forgotten as soon as readers put it down.

    In general, I also find people are smarter than we think. And hungrier for thoughtful things that most people's mindless habits suggest. It's like eating nothing but Twinkies and Ding Dongs. Somewhere in our hearts and minds, we are craving some salmon and brown rice! The only way to get out of this bright, shiny dark age is to do our part as well as we can.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Thank you, Julie. I agree, what language you use differs depending on what you are writing and who your audience is. You make good distinctions.

  • Juliet Wilson

    Excellent article. If I'm writing publicity material for a general audience I use Plain English, straightforward and uncomplicated so that it's easy to understand, but acknowledging that some topics and issues have their own vocabulary which is vital to full understanding. And I hate to see publications which use fancy fonts and very easy words when they're trying to reach a general audience, it looks patronising and dumbed down.

    With creative writing though it's entirely different. I love unusual words (as long as they're used correctly) and interesting sentence structures. Language Arts entirely captures that type of writing. And when I'm reading a novel or poetry i revel in rick language (well at least up to a point, it took me 6 attempts to get past page 6 of James Joyce's Ullysees!)

  • Patricia Robertson

    Thank you, Frances. Literary fiction is difficult to break into. There is an audience for it but I don't know how to find them. I'm struggling with finding my audience as well.

    Thank you for commenting, Olga. I haven't read the Twilight series. I wonder whether the books that are best sellers today will be around years from now. Do they have the staying power of the classics, like Dickens who appealed to the masses and is still read?

  • Patricia Robertson

    Brenda, I have also noted the increase in spelling errors in published works. Frustrating. You have little choice but to skip over them, skip reading the articles entirely, or fume. It bothers me because over time I can see how it affects my writing. I used to teach undergraduate freshman Psychology classes at a college that pretty much accepted everyone. Many of the paper student's turned in were terrible. Over time after reading so many papers with errors, I began to feel like I was losing my ability to know what was correct and what wasn't. I'm more lenient in email but I still try to use correct grammar and spelling when emailing simply because I'm concerned about the errors becoming accepted. (By the way, my next post for Reality Check will be on the perils of self-editing)

  • Olga Godim

    On one hand, there is something offensive in the phrase "play to the masses", but unfortunately, that is what many writers do. And "the masses" as well as the powerful in publishing expect it. I noticed recently that most TV series are also crafted for stupid. There are very few TV shows for intelligent people and they tend not to last as long as the simplified ones. It is not even about vocabulary. It's about who your heroes are. They should appeal to a girl next door or a suburban wife. I guess that's why Twilight was so successful: the heroine is really dumb. Such a pity.

  • I am a retired teacher of "Language Arts" among other subjects. I have a Master's Degree in Education and work toward a PhD. In my own writing, I tend to "dumb down" when writing nonfiction articles which readers will probably use for reference or for a quick read on a specific topic. When writing fiction, I use my own voice and vocabulary. That may appear backwards to some, yet it makes perfect sense to me. The definitions of many "hard" words can be easily inferred from the context: what came right before and and after the words, as well from the surrounding paragraphs in general. Context tends to be richer in fiction than in nonfiction, so that inferred meanings are less difficult to deduce than the same words would be in a nonfiction piece. 

    As a reader, I enjoy the challenge of finding new or forgotten words in the fiction that I read. I keep a notepad and pen handy beside my bed. Thanks to Kindle, I can click on a word and immediately learn its definition. 

    On the flip side, as a reader of many Kindle books, I am appalled at the many instances of misused words and at the seemingly total lack of editing in much of what I read. (I'm sure this has been covered in the forum ad nauseam). My daughter, as you would expect, is well-educated and from a home in which correct English was routine. She enjoys reading as time allows now. I recently asked her about the abundance of errors I find when reading, and if she had been aware of the same thing. She told me that she does see the errors, but that she just skips over them and doesn't let them get in her way of enjoying the story. That appears to be the prevailing attitude from those who are well-educated, and I'm afraid that I'm beginning to become numb to the onslaught of horrible grammar, etc. 

    Off my soapbox for now.


    (Yes, I'm sure that my writing above has errors. I tend to be less judgemental in cases of emails and texts).

  • Frances Brown

    Patricia, you hit it spot on with this statement:

    <It seems to me I can give publishers what they want and play to the masses, or I can write what I see fit to write and face the possibility that my words will lie forever in obscurity. It’s a challenge.>

    Having come from a nonfiction writing background, I find it so challenging to temper my "smart-speak" when writing novels that will appeal widely to publishers. I want to write what I like to read, and I'm not a big fan of literary fiction. But that's unfortunately what I tend to write. And the hardest genre to break into for a writer. A conundrum, for sure.