by Eric Olsen
A recent New York Times article titled “To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify” caught my attention. Ok, cold cocked me. It’s about how authors of “adult” nonfiction are doing “slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions of popular nonfiction titles….” The market for “young adult” (YA) and children’s’ books apparently is booming, while the market for “adult” books still lags.
Of course, one has to wonder how many kids really are reading more. Could be, notes the article:
Publishers have another potential audience in mind for these books: adults who have embraced children’s fiction and may be too intimidated or busy to read a 900-page nonfiction tome. “Adults are now so used to reading young adult books that there may be some nice crossover,” said [Beverley] Horowitz [publisher of Delacorte Press].”
Nice crossover as in sales, too, one might hope….
This reminded me of my days as an editor at Time Inc Health, a TimeWarner company, back when it was still TimeWarner, before it bought AOL, perhaps the stupidest business decision in the history of stupid business decisions. But I digress….
At Time Inc Health, we did health and medical publications for “consumers,” and one of our editorial rules was to keep it simple. Indeed, our reverence for simplicity was based on data from various surveys that found that the average American read at a 5th or 6th grade level, and if we wanted to reach that average American—and boy, howdy, did we ever!—we damn well better make sure we kept our prose simple. We even had a style guide that included a “fog index,” a formula for calculating the reading level of a chunk of prose. (MS Word also has such a function as well: See “Reading Statistics” under “Spelling and Grammar,” which includes the Flesch Reading Ease scale and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale.) But we didn’t use either, as we thought Flesch and Kincaid were too forgiving, if not a bit lackadaisical in their approach to reading levels (we never would have used a word like “lackadaisical,” of course). We aimed for short sentences and words of no more than two syllables, and better yet fewer. We even had the editor of Reader’s Digest come in and give a day-long tutorial on “fog,” and how to “de-fog” prose, including a hand-out of “14 Kinds of Fog”. If anyone knew how to write simple prose, we figured, it was the folks at Reader’s Digest. (According the Flesch-Kincaid scale, by the way, the above paragraph is written at a 10th grade level; according to our fog index, I’m sorry to say, it’s even worse….)
My initial reaction to the fog index was a horror that transmogrified over time to complete disdain. Many of my colleagues and I took to calling the process of editing texts to lower the reading level as “dumbing down,” though only among ourselves, and with lowered voices, and our writers were at least as outraged as we were, since it was their deathless prose we were messing with. But over time, despite my initial horror, I became a simple-prose believer. In fact, I soon began to appreciate how difficult it is to write simply and clearly, especially about complex subjects such as health and medicine, and how important it was for us especially to keep the prose clear and simple, given that we were often giving medical information that, if misunderstood, could lead to disaster.
But in the process of “dumbing down” prose, it soon became clear to me, it was often not so much a matter of getting rid of long words and writing shorter sentences, but of figuring out what we were really trying to say. This was the true challenge and, in the end, the most valuable part of the exercise. Complex prose, I soon came to see, was often a disguise for sloppy thinking. I still believe this, though this post may not be the best example of clear thinking and simple writing….
Of course, the New York Times article is about nonfiction, and that’s what I was working with at Time Inc Health. But the same principles of clear prose can certainly be applied to fiction, and with similar results, as the sales figures of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games novels, for example, demonstrate.
I bring all of this up because the New York Times article reminds us, if we need reminding, that if as writers we want to reach the largest audience possible, if we want that best-seller, if we want big fat royalty checks each quarter, and if we can’t somehow manage to work some zombies and/or vampires into our stories, at least keep it simple. Better yet, keep it simple with vampires and zombies….
Ok, these books may not be deathless prose that expresses the author’s own unique and unequaled genius in all its complexity, and with sentences that maybe go on for a page or two or three, but then as writers we have to ask ourselves what’s really important? I guess I’ve made my decision. Now all I have to do is finish something….
Note: All of this stuff about simple sentences reminds me of the Nun Study of Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. This a longitudinal study of some 600 nuns that began back in 1986 in Minnesota. Among other things, the study looks at the writing styles of the nuns when they were young—mean age of 22. All the nuns wrote autobiographies when they first entered the order. Years later, when the study began and as the nuns became older, the researchers could relate their writing styles when young with their risk of dementia later in life. And quelle surprise, the nuns who wrote with what the researchers referred to as “low linguistic ability” (short, simple sentences and lack of content density) had a much higher incidence of dementia later in life. Another study of another population found that moderately demented adults likewise tended to write short, simple sentences (no doubt they’d have fit right in with us at Time Inc Health). Just what the cause-and-effect relationship might be between simple prose and dementia remains to be seen. But I’d say that if you do start writing for a young adult audience, “dumbing down” your prose, you might want to try to write something else now and then with sentences that go on and on and on and use all sorts of big words. Which leads me to wonder if the guys in the head office at Time Inc had gotten our memo about simple prose and took it perhaps too much to heart, and thus made that disastrous deal with AOL….
Another Note: Vocative is an interesting website that recently looked at the “rhetorical prowess” of our presidents going back to George Washington. The folks who did the analysis applied the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level reading test to the presidential speeches and found a steady decline in grade level from George Washington to our more recent presidents. “It’s tempting to read this as a dumbing down of the bully pulpit,” says Jeff Shesol, a historian and former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, and one of the folks who did the analysis. “But it’s actually a sign of democratization.” That may be so, but let’s not forget that President Reagan was already in the early stages of Alzheimer’s during his first term, and increasingly demented in his second. Not that anyone noticed. Dubya has a well-earned reputation for inarticulateness off-the-cuff, but in fact his prepared speeches are only slightly less “sophisticated,” say the Vocative analysts, than President Obama’s, who’s known for his elegance in speeches. Of course it’s very unlikely Dubya wrote any of his speeches; he was simply good at reading what Dick Cheney wrote for him. I’m not sure I buy Vocative’s use of “sophisticated” to mean higher grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, though; sometimes what may seem “sophisticated” is just complex prose used to disguise the fact the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Ever use the Flesch-Kincaid or similar guidelines on your own writing? Do you consider YA novels dumbed down?