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Writing for Overloaded Readers: It’s Not Dumbing Down
Anne Janzer -- Membership Expert Anne Janzer -- Membership Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: San Luis Obispo , CA
Tuesday, April 09, 2019


As college students, we are taught to read and analyze literature or dense texts, and to elaborate our brilliant thoughts in complex sentences. Then we enter the real world, and it all goes out the window.

Business writing coaches and style guides sing the praises of a “conversational” tone in writing. We are encouraged to communicate in a simple, straightforward tone that feels personal and human. (I’m one of those advocates: my book The Workplace Writer’s Process focuses on writing for the reader’s cognitive ease.)

If you have mastered beautiful writing and enjoy savoring the well-turned sentence and intricate prose, you might push back on this advice. You might feel that you’re being asked to “dumb down” your writing.

That’s not so. My advice to pare down and simplify is born from respect for the reader’s cognitive reality.

What’s Happening with the Reader’s Brains

Maryanne Wolf describes the situation beautifully in her book Reader, Come Home. She cites a study by the Global Information Industry Center suggesting that the average reader consumes about 34 gigabytes of content daily. That’s like filtering through something near 100,000 words a day! Your writing has competition.

Worse, and more worrisome, is that because we spend so much time skimming, we start to lose our “cognitive patience” for slowing down and comprehending denser material. We’re training our brains for quick scanning, not deep reading.

What’s a writer to do? It depends on how many people you hope to reach with your words.

If you want to connect with a broad audience, you cannot count your readers’ deep-reading abilities. Your loyal fans and followers might take time to read the work carefully–but don’t count on it. Even if your readers want to take their time with your work, their deep reading time is scarce and those mental circuits may be rusty.

In general, you can go wide or you can go deep. You can’t easily do both at the same time.

Writing Strategies for Reaching a Wide Audience

Once published, your writing becomes a tiny part of those 100,000 words your reader encounters each day. Those words have get past the attention filters in the reader’s brains.

If you want to change the world, you must first be heard and understood.

To reach a broader audience, write in a way that survives the quick-scanning reading process. This is especially critical when writing content that people will read on screens instead of paper, or when your subject area is something people don’t necessarily read for pleasure.

Here are a few ways to reach the distracted, scanning reader:

  • Create structures like bulleted or numbered lists that help people find what they need quickly.
  • Use heading and subheads to guide the scanners through key points. (You can even add subheadings in a lengthy email.)
  • Break up long sentences with many dependent clauses into smaller sentences. The reader’s working memory is already overloaded. It shouldn’t have to juggle your clauses while waiting for the sentence to finish.

At the same time, don’t be boring. Sprinkle in unexpected images, motion-based verbs (like sprinkle) or unusual examples to catch the reader’s attention.

Clear and succinct writing doesn’t have to put people to sleep.

Serving the Deep Readers in Your Audience

If your prose is beautiful and your thoughts nuanced, some percentage of your audience will slow down and pay attention. (Or they might put it aside to read later, like my big stack of New Yorker magazines…)

By all means, maintain your masterful prose skills.  However, pay attention to where and how readers will encounter this work.

Certain formats signal opportunities for deeper reading, including books, white papers and articles. People are more likely to read printed material with greater attention, if it’s something they want to read in the first place. When we read online, our focus must content with open tabs, alerts, menus, and apps always tempting us to abandon the effort.

If you’re writing an article that requires cognitive effort to parse, consider distributing it as a PDF. That simple format decision often signals to the reader that they should treat the piece like a printed work.

And cultivate the reader’s curiosity and interest. If they are investing the effort to work through the piece, make the process worth their deep reading time and cognitive patience.

Postscript: Protecting Your Own Deep Reading

Since reading Wolf’s book, I’ve decided to be more intentional about practicing and sustaining my deep reading skills. I’ve set aside a place for “deep reading” in my life–a chair that’s far from computers, with good light, a notepad and pen at the ready. When I settle in there, I give myself permission to simply read, without thoughts of being productive or finishing the text quickly. It’s lovely.

How do you preserve deep reading in your life?

Related Resources

Writing to Be Understood discusses strategies for communicating nonfiction topics with a wide range of readers.

Read my reviews of two great books on this general topic: Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.

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