Do you have to “dumb down” your writing to reach a wide audience?

Here is a question I hear in many different forms. Do you have to “dumb down” your writing to reach a wide audience?  As an editor, I always want to say “no, of course not.” As a writer, I find the question harder to dismiss. I am sure of one thing. “Dumbing down” is not only an arrogant way to conceive of this dilemma— it’s an inaccurate one. To explain, I’ve got’ta go all the way back to high school.

chisels not hammersMy favorite writing teacher urged us “to learn to think with chisels, not hammers.” The wisdom of her advice was largely lost on me at the time, high as I was on the connections I was just beginning to make between my own experiences and the wide world of ideas. But the metaphor stuck.  Thinking with hammers. Thinking with chisels. Hmmmph…. What could she be talking about?

If thinking were like sculpting, I could imagine how useful hammers would be at first for separating a chunk of stone from a larger piece of rock. Continuing to hammer away at the block, though, could do a lot of damage. But what would it mean to really think and write with chisels?

As I moved through college and graduate school, I grew suspicious of bold statements and direct language. I began to value more precise and subtle arguments that provided greater depths of insight. The complexity of this kind of thinking felt real and solid, true to the complexity of life. Picking up a chisel and working with it exhaustively was eye-opening for me.

By the time I began to teach, I understood that in many ways, the real challenge for writers—in high school, college, and beyond— is learning to think with chisels instead of hammers. And we make ever more precise and nuanced statues. A very different challenge, though, eventually confronts some researchers.

If we want to speak to an audience beyond a small cadre of peers in our own disciplines, we may need to learn to think (and write) with some tools we’ve put aside.  The trick of course is to use our experience with fine chiseling to help wield the hammer without doing harm to the statue we’re carving.

By “doing no harm,” I mean avoiding the mischaracterizations that have caused dangerous misunderstandings. Can we use direct and engaging language without conflating or erasing important factors? I hope so. That’s certainly what I am trying to do in my current project. But, it’s hard—maybe even harder than learning to use chisels was all those years ago.

I pay special attention when I see both chisels and hammers used with great skill. Since my own reading tends to be in American history and poetry, the models I’ve spotted recently come from those fields.  Here are just three examples that I’d point to: Jane Addams: Spirit in Action by Louise Knight (Norton, 2010); The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young (Bloomsbury, 2010); and Firebrand of Liberty by Stephen Ash (Norton, 2008).

Though these are three very different books, they share an important trait. All three reap the harvest of years of meticulous work without being weighed down by it. Knight and Ash offer insight into the characters of the historical figures they study to reveal more about the moment in which they lived, as well as their influence on the larger tides of social change. Young’s book is an edited collection of poems, but I think it’s important to include this type of book in this list. Putting together a collection requires wrestling with exactly these sorts of questions about how to represent a complex subject with a kind of clarity that doesn’t lock down meaning.

As I work toward that goal with my own project, sometimes it seems more like I’m learning what to leave out than what to put in. And the relevant question is not ‘do we have to dumb down our writing to appeal to a broader audience?.’ Instead, I’m asking a series of questions. Can I let go of some of the details I’ve grown to love? Can I leave unsaid some of the qualifications and disclaimers that seem to promise safety from attack? Can I refrain from pushing the hot-buttons of scholarly debates that matter little to people outside the academy? And, perhaps most importantly, can I embrace the emotional resonance of my research with my own experience and, by extension, that of my readers?


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