Monday, February 14, 2011

The Dos and Don'ts of Dumbing Down

I’ve had a number of writers ask me if they should dumb down their writing for their readers. Though these writers generally write for small children and teenagers, the question is relevant for all writers.

To answer this question, I could easily say, no don’t ever dumb down, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. So, I’ve compiled a short list of dos and don’ts:

DO treat your readers as you would yourself: with respect. Dumbing down your writing can across as condescending and patronising.

DON’T use words that show how smart you are. Use ones that are right. This will sometimes mean the simpler words are more fitting.

DO give your readers some credit. They are intelligent human beings. They don’t need everything explained to them.

DON’T go for simplicity for simplicity’s sake.

DO try to keep your writing consistent. If your style is simple, then throwing in a big word will only draw attention to that big word.

DON’T dumb down your language so far that you lose the essence of your meaning.

DO know your audience, your market. Use words your audience will relate and respond to.

Can you think of other dos and don’ts? Do you change your writing style for a target readership?


  1. Good advice.
    Our teachers always tell us to trust the reader, to not overexplain everything.

    But you're right. Know your audience.
    Nahno ∗ McLein

  2. Nahno, Hi and welcome :)
    It's so easy to over-explain but so unnecessary

  3. Great advice - especially about treating your potential readers as you would yourself!! Yay!!
    Take care

  4. great post--you are so right about using the words/vocab that's *right* for the situation. Thanks, Lynda~ :o) <3 Happy V'day!

  5. Old Kitty, thanks :)

    LTM, happy V'Day to you too :)

  6. oooh, I hate hate hate and hate when writers use "smart" words just to show off, I really can't stand it, bot personally and professionally. And it's true, and it's been proved many times, that books with simple but lovely language are the ones which readers remember forever and love.

  7. This is some great advice that I wish some published authors would follow. I've gotten books that seem to use only the most obscure words known to man....and they don't serve the plot or essence of the story at all.

    Great post!

  8. Good reminders all, Lynda. Choosing the right word is so important.

  9. Useful reminders. A writer I respect very much used to tell me 'always assume that the reader is more intelligent than you are.' I have found his advice to be sound.

  10. I like it when a writer adds a new word or two into the mix but when writers add words that they know the reader won't understand, that's just arrogant.

  11. These are all good tips! My children used to enjoy books where they would learn new words. Kids hate being talked down to. Believe it or not, they LIKE to learn while being entertained.

  12. I love complex characters in complicated plots, written in tight, straightforward language. I don't think we should dumb down our writing, and feel that flowery or pretentious writing distracts the reader and pulls him out of the story.

  13. Dezzy, I'm guessing you hate that? ;) It's true, though, when write use those "smart" words, they only alienate their readers.

    Words Crafter, I don't mind expanding my vocab, but when it's an obcure word that 1% of the population knows its meaning...I pass.

    Alex, Thanks :)

  14. EC Smith, thanks

    JL Campbell, I like that advice. A lot.

    Clarissa, yes, exactly

    KarenG, YES! in the case of children's books (and any book), absolutely there is nothing wrong with learning while being entertained.

    Patricia, well said :)

  15. great post! kids and teens are incredibly bright and pick up language so quickly!
    "smart words" for show-off's sake tick me off. :)

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Good points! I'm glad I write for YA/teens though, because often the first word I think of is the more complex one. Go figure. But there are generally less restrictions in YA vocab-wise, and I like that.

    I do have to change vocab in dialogue sometimes, to match that character's personality or vocab range.

    Happy Valentine's day to you!!

  18. Hi,
    I write MG sometimes, so I enjoyed your dumbing down points.
    Anyhow, I'm stopping by from the Crusade going on at Rach Writes. It's good to meet another blogosphere friend. My blog is at
    I'd love another follower.

  19. Good advice! While writing and talking also...
    This is one thing I don't have to worry about, I can't "dumb down." I'm already there!

    Happy Valentine's Day!

  20. I love ‘DO give your readers some credit‘. Good, solid advice there.

    Just a quick note to say: You have an award waiting for you at my blog, The Write Words!

  21. Oh, this is great! I am editing a book for adults at the moment, but my two MCs are 13 and 10, so I've had to do a lot of editing to sound age appropriate--almost always, it is their LANGUAGE--relatively simple vocabulary--a little course and sassy from the teen--she's from a rough neighborhood, but the big catches are things like 'went down' instead of 'descended'. It's not that a teen doesn't KNOW descended, it just isn't how they'd think of it.

  22. aspiring, thanks. They are bright.

    Carol, yes, dialogue is a good example of where language should change according to the character

    Lois, Hi to another Crusader :) I'll pop on over :)

  23. Pat, hahaha
    Happy Valentines day to you too :)

    Lindsey, oh, thanks so much for the award :)

    Hart, yes, another great example. The more syllables a word has, the more complex it becomes.

  24. I don't mind big words. In some stories they fit. Although, you can tell if the author is trying too hard or if that is just their natural style / speech.

  25. Great tips! Ahoy from a fellow Crusader! :)

  26. M Pax, yes, exactly. Sometimes words stand out on there own in a bad way.

    EJ Wesley, Ahoy thar! wait, are Crusaders seafarers as well? ;)

  27. This is good advice. I am planning on starting a middle grade book later in the year and have been wondering about this since I usually write adult... though I've read some MG that are amazingly well written, so I don't want to be simplistic just for the sake of age!

  28. Hi Lynda! Nice to meet you, fellow Crusader :)

  29. Great tips, Lynda. I've always thought that the number one rule is to respect the reader and trust them. Once we do that the rest becomes much easier.


  30. Michelle, Thanks, thanks, thanks and thanks ;)

    Alexia, the best books are the ones that appeal to all ages imo.

    Jess, Hi fellow Crusader. It's nice to meet you too :)

    Jai, so very true

  31. Great dos and don'ts. I have a book called The Childrens' Writer's Word Book that's like a thesaurus and it goes by age group, based on what words children will know by a certain age. I don't write for children that young anymore, but it's a great resource for those who do.

  32. Great advice, all the points are absolutely true. I am in sync with your view.

  33. Susan, that sounds like a brilliant resource!

    Rachna, thanks

  34. You are totally right. The Harry Potter books were not dumbed down and kids strove to learn the words because the story was THAT good. Dropping by to say hello from the crusades...following.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  35. Great advice, I mean if we keep dumbing everything down, where do we stop? I think reading should challenge us a little, make us reach a bit.

    Lauri (a fellow crusader)


I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.