Is it Dumbing Down or Just Carefully Crafted Writing?

Professor Sandra Stockey believes most American high-schoolers average reading level is about the fifth grade (5.3 to be exact, although I’m still hesitant of the source). Which is sad and we bemoan this downfall of American education and mourn the slow loss of intelligence in our nation, et cetera.

I thought it quite humorous and that the classics are dumbed down in some classrooms. And I quote Professor’s Stockey’s article, “Many high school students are now reading “classics” rewritten at a second-, third-, or fourth-grade level (e.g., Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, The Time Machine, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jane Eyre, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Scarlet Letter, and A Christmas Carol), although only Romeo and Juliet is on the top 40 list for all high school students.” Which means they lose whatever made them actual classics. Just the idea that one can edit a classic and it still keeps its “classic-ness” is absurd.

But this idea of “dumbing down” intrigues me. I was taught you write newspaper articles at a sixth grade level. My first newspaper article contained the word “synecdoche” and of course the editor changed it. Who uses that word anyway?

I do want to quickly differentiate between voice and “dumbing down”. Voice could be defined as dumbed down, but not dumbed down for the specific purpose of giving a 12th grader a chance of understanding the material.

Jeff Goins thinks the future of books is essentially dumbed down with short chapters. He uses The Hunger Games as an example. He avoids arguing for the craft of the book. But I can’t argue for craft since I haven’t read it (yet? I don’t know). In his blog “Why the Hunger Games is the Future of Writing” he states, “We live in a world of distractions. Not surprisingly, most people are reading at the attention level of a sixth grader. How does Collins accomplish this? She writes short novels, in large fonts, with quick chapters. If you’re going to get people to read your content (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction), you should consider doing the same.”

Young adult fiction is said to be some pretty good literature (like A Wrinkle in Time), but this idea of intentionally writing for sixth graders perplexes my small mind. Why not just write the best story one can? Why make an effort to appeal to the restless crowd? Maybe it takes skill to write a good story at a specific level. It’s not like I’ve ever been successful at it. Maybe someday I’ll understand.

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49 thoughts on “Is it Dumbing Down or Just Carefully Crafted Writing?

  1. The fact that “we live in a world of distractions” is exactly why I want a meaty, complex, engaging book to draw me away from it all! I think (hope) there are plenty of readers who feel the same. If all writers begin to write at a 6th grade level just to sell books, then there’s no hope of readers ever finding something better. My vote is for writing the best story you can.

  2. I don’t think authors write YA books to “dumb down” material for a wider range of readers. And I don’t think adults are becoming increasingly interested in YA books because they need shorter chapters, simple sentences, etc. YA literature currently offers some of the most creative, daring plot ideas and endearing characters in the current reading market. Everyone should start writing engaging novels, with inventive plots–whether they’re short or long, with short or long chapters, and large or small print doesn’t matter–like the Hunger Games; it’s the content that’s popular, not the structure and length. Harry Potter was middle-grade fiction with epic page counts; I’m pretty sure that alone counteracts the argument that short books are the only way to get a wide audience.

    • I’ve heard YA contains some of the best fiction being written. Do YA fiction authors write differently for a YA audience compared to an adult one? And by differently I mean use a simpler sentence structure or simpler words. I don’t read enough YA to comment, but I’m intrigued by the difference, however knowing that much YA lit is just lit stamped with the YA tag as a way to market the book.

      • To be classified as YA literature, there are actually a lot of qualifications. It doesn’t just get slapped on the back of book covers. One of the big ones is that the narrator or main character has to be a young adult themselves, usually between the ages of 14 and 18. Their experiences have to be young adult experiences, which manifest in common themes: coming of age, for example, and high school stuff (stretching to maybe freshman year of college), and the beauty of that is that YA can exist in every genre and those experiences can be as dark or as light-hearted and care-free as the author wishes.

        As for sentence structure . . . personally, I believe in simplifying word choices in middle grade fiction (written for an even younger audience, 9-13, say) but I think the writing is dependent more upon the narrator/main character than the YA definition. For example, in Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, it’s believable that both characters use massive amounts of dictionary-worthy, archaic words because they’re both freakishly well-read, bookish, straight-A teenagers. Character and voice dictates if the book has simple sentences or Shakespearean ones.

        • Thanks, that’s very informative. What YA books would you highly recommend?

          Obviously YA genre appeals to adults as well. Are there not books that meet YA requirements but are not sold as YA?

          • I’d highly recommend: I Am the Messenger, The Book Thief, The Scorpio Races, Thirteen Reasons Why, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares. They’ve all won tons of awards and are contemporary classics.

            I think there are a lot of books appropriate for YA readers that aren’t sold as YA books, but I’m not sure YA-specific books are ever mislabeled. YA is the biggest selling market, currently, and publishers aren’t going to try to hide a book in adult fiction shelves if it could make it in the YA field. Do you have any particular titles in mind?

            • The only books I have in mind, their titles escape me at the moment, were not by American writers, and if I looked into further probably wouldn’t fit YA criteria completely. Thanks for the recommendations.

  3. I agree that books have dumbed down over time because a lot of them are becoming marketed specifically toward children and young adults. That being said, however, I’ve read quite a few of the books in that photo, and I really enjoyed Shiver, Graceling, and Hoot.

  4. I think my struggle with all this is what the intention is. Is our intention to allow our writing voice to come out the best? Is our intention to write a book that appeals to readers at a younger age? Or is our intention to write a book purposely dumbed down so we can appeal to the masses? I’m fine with the first two, but the last intention gives me shivers.

  5. My struggle in all this is just as you wrote about…intention. My issue with how Jeff presented the future of writing is that it appeals to the lowest common denominator simply for the sake of making things easy. I’ve always thought the important things were difficult and I think writers should be bringing the reader up to their level. This is a lot more difficult than “dumbing down” writing.

  6. Hey thanks for following my blog.
    I enjoyed your post above. I read a book that theorized the reason for what you are seeing is the increased use of the Internet and hyperlinks, which cause readers to continuously jump from topic to topic without fully focussing or understanding what they’ve just seen. At any rate thanks again,
    Dwayne

  7. We (no, not we, but maybe publishers) dumb things down to appeal to the masses. The masses are they who purchase the books. 🙂 BUT, the heart of the story can remain, if you are creative about how you dumb down.
    I had no clue these classics were being rewritten for a less literate audience. I was reading these classics in third grade–what is the problem? It’s a sad situation.
    Very good post. I don’t think it was dumbed down (you never explained synecdoche–but don’t worry, you don’t need to).
    🙂
    Cheers.

  8. I, too, have noticed what type of “literature” is considered a best seller compared to what literature was considered a best a seller many years ago differs in regards to bigger font and shorter chapters. I read somewhere that today’s society are full of “information narcissists” always looking for information about everyone and anything and so we now tend to be distracted when it comes to the simple pleasures of life like a good read or writing.

  9. Writing to a grade 4, 5 or 5 level isn’t dumbing down. It’s harder to write simply than it is to confuse people. The readability of all novels shouldn’t be higher than grade 9 level. However, figures much lower are ideal.

    That sounds very scientific, huh? Well I only believe in it now after learning much about writing. I’d like to think I communicate my message clearly these days 🙂

      • Yup! I heard this quote and its message has stuck with me ever since. It goes something like:

        “Anyone can confuse someone but it takes skill to write understandable text.”

        • I tend to care more about wowing my readers with beautiful sentences and words nobody understands. I don’t care if they are confused, it’s their fault for not understanding. I’ll slowly adjust to clarity, hopefully.

  10. Ross, I’m struggling with some of the same mindbenders that you are. (See “One million words…in theory”: http://david-michael-williams.com/2012/03/19/one-million-wordsin-theory/)

    If any genre can get away with dumbing down and disguise it as a noble cause, it’s YA fiction. Do you remember how many people sang Harry Potter’s praises because he cast a spell over youngsters and got them to (gasp!) pick up a book. Forget vanquishing Voldemort, the bespectacaled boy wizard got kids to like books again. Allegedly.

    If a book fosters a love of reading in the young, well, all’s forgiven, right?

    Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed “Hunger Games” (the sequels, not so much) and “Harry Potter” (although it borrowed so heavily and obviously from its source material and got needlessly longwinded near the end). I guess if you’re an author, you’re damned if you write too short and damned if you write too long. All we can do is write what feels right.

    But we don’t. Not really. We want our books to sell and that means, on some level, appeasing the masses. But we aren’t doing the masses any favors by dumbing our writing down.

    I could go on and on about today’s fiction versus yesteryear’s literature (many of the writers of the classics weren’t commercially successful in their lifetimes, after all), but I have my own blog for that, and it’s a topic that definitely warrants consideration.

    People read fiction for myriad reasons. There’s room for hardy, complex prose and lighter, fun fluff. And, hopefully, appetites for that which falls in between. Another way to look at it is that if we writers all decide to cater to the lowest common denominator, we evoke a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    After all, if we don’t challenge ourselves to write above a sixth-grade reading level, the masses won’t have a chance to push themselves.

  11. Hi, I don’t know if you got my reply to your question above but in case you haven’t the book was called “The Shallows”, by Nicholas Carr. http://www.theshallowsbook.com/nicholascarr/Nicholas_Carrs_The_Shallows.html. He contends the Internet is a partial cause of the poor attention span we currently see.
    My question would be how does one write at a lower reading level? Wouldn’t that require much more thought, almost like writing in another language where you had to translate everything first?
    Dwayne

    • I agree. I think Suzanne Collins is probably writing from her heart. I can’t comment on YA fiction when I haven’t read much. But the majority of comments are those saying the craft of YA fiction is clear, concise, below a college level vocabulary, and with simple syntax. Am I right all you who commented? That the ideas YA fiction present are applicable to a YA audience rather than ideas which are “dumbed down”. That in fact it’s all precise and unequivocal.

      • I agree, it is, but then, why should it not be that way?

        I guess I think that, YES, we are dumbing down our reading material, but I do think it’s because we have created that distracted society. There’s too much to do!

        With computers, video games, cell phones and what not, kids don’t care to learn “old fogey” literature. I like it, but our kids don’t. I also think teachers, I hate to say it, have been dumbed down, too, and they don’t want to TEACH classic literature because they don’t understand it either!

        It used to be that people studied their crafts in depth. They’d spend a lifetime studying one thing and doing it well. We don’t do that anymore. I don’t think today’s kids can understand Shakespeare UNLESS it is dumbed down. Yes, it’s a shame, but I think writing and reading are evolving, like everything else. AH, but soon we will be back to writing on stone tablets, I fear. 🙂

        But I guess I don’t think writing has to be fancy to be wonderful. It doesn’t bother me as much as the idea of rewriting books without certain words! That makes me crazy. 😦

        • I think the challenge for writers then, is to create new stories with fresh language that not only appeals to those lost non-readers but also provokes a new thirst. I think those stories and books are out there, but it takes more than just the act of publishing to grow and nurture hungry readers.

      • Oh, what I meant by that was: you aren’t supposed to write certain words – you must be politically correct. Ok, I will say, that does drive me nuts. Why are we all so easily offended? Anyway, I see a hyperactive society. A hyper-controlled society. A hyper-controlling society.

        I guess we have to go with the flow. This is where literature is headed.

  12. Love this post. I agree with you 100 percent.

    No need to even try to understand dumbed down writing. It’s all about selling to the media-addicted masses with low attention span. It does take great skill to write a good story. And nothing is more enriching than reading one. Skillful writing an art. A good story stays with you; a great author is inventive, has heart, makes you think. Here’s my chance to plug Nathan Englander’s new collection. Truly astonishing!

  13. Can we just start calling it all fiction again and get rid of the subheadings? That way we can choose for ourselves to whom the writing applies. A good story with multifaceted themes draws readers. The structure is at the writer’s discretion.
    As far as “synecdoche” I once read someone who stated that the way the Founding Fathers wrote was not the way they spoke and that this was also true today. I am a writer and I am OFTEN accused of using $5 words. I speak as I write. The “dumbing down” is just a side effect (affect? 😉 of laziness.

  14. Are is are (at least 🙂 ) questions for any creative writer – and I am one – to ask themselves:

    How interested am I in whether my message gets across?

    How interested am I in style/elegance/innovation/ect,

    And then, of course, there the way these desires interact.

  15. I find this interesting simply because I myself took note of this apparent “dumbing down” of literature back at the peak of the Twilight mania. I read the first book, mostly to see what all the fuss was about, and barely finished it without losing my mind in the process. The level of writing was such that I was fairly certain my then 6 year old sister could have written a better novel. What bothered me the most, I think, was that I know can write volumes better than that and yet still have doubts that my own writing would be worth being published at that level.

    What offends me most about this dumbing down of our popular literature is the lack of development in some aspect of the story. A lot of times it’s inherent in the plot but for me the most disrespectful thing a writer can do is fail to develop the characters he or she is portraying. If they’re just going through the motions, how can I care and continue the story?

    All that being said, I have to admit I am quite a fan of the Hunger Games series. I just finished the second book and can’t wait to read the third one.

    • Inherent in the “formula” of the genre is the emphasis on plot over characters. Characters are merely tools to forward the plot, so you get lots of underdevelopment.

  16. I am not sure if they are considered classics yet, but I don’t think the Harry Potter books were dumbed down. Kids will read what they perceive to be interesting. If a book is thought to be more of a chore then, of course, they’ll want to get through it as fast and as easily as possible–as do some teachers.

  17. The hunger games isn’t an easy plot. It can be quite depressing actually. It doesn’t talk down to YA’s, the writing is sharp. The characters aren’t one dimensional or snide. It works because YA’s live in a world not of their making, but someone elses, and that’s very much what the novel talks about.
    Twilight hit another market altogether. Horny girls.

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