The Dumb and Dumber of Web Copy

11 August, 2011

web content, web copywriting

For many web copy projects a requirement invariably includes reducing language to a certain grade level. Why? “People” don’t understand what we’re talking about. And according to most sources, the “average” level of comprehension is 8th grade. The lowest grade level I’ve been asked to write to so far is grade 5.

“Use words with as few syllables as possible. Shorten your sentences. Use fewer sentences in a paragraph… If you can replace a longer word with a shorter one, then do it. Oh, and banish technical speak and jargon.” That’s the general prescription.

This approach — to dumb down again and again and yet again the language we speak and write in seems counter-intuitive to the country’s educational initiatives (U.S. Falls  in World Education Rankings). It would seem we might slowly but surely try to work in the opposite direction: increase the intellectual understanding, challenge the status quo, and inspire new learning for both kids and adults. I’m quite sure I was taught how to use a dictionary when I was a 5th grader.

But maybe it’s that ALL of us are getting dumber…

Nicholas Carr asked Is Google Making Us Stupid? in the Atlantic a few years ago. His answer:

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

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One Comment on “The Dumb and Dumber of Web Copy”

  1. B. Ligerent Says:

    I find that ‘dumb’ copy is the hardest to write. It’s also the least satisfying because at least on first glance it looks so simple. Sometimes writers want to show off their brilliance.

    But really, so much of copywriting is about being brilliant without revealing to the reader what you’re really doing. It’s like PsyOps.

    I wrote about the ‘dumb’ conundrum on my blog recently:

    I gave some tips that I’ve given to copywriters I’ve trained in the past. One of the key points I think copywriters need to keep in mind is that the readers, particularly on the web, aren’t really ‘reading’ their content. They’re just skimming. The writer is spending hours thinking about that piece of copy; the reader spends a fraction of a second.

    You’ve almost got to approach the work with the mindset of a graphic design – simplicity, clarity, boldness.


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