Weingarten: Writing for dummies


(Eric Shansby)
Columnist August 29, 2014

Gene is on vacation. This column originally appeared in 2003.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

I am worried. I am worried because I just learned something. What I learned was bad.

I learned it from a letter I got. It was from a man. His name is Bill.

Bill is an authority on how people read and write. “Authority” is a great big word. It means that Bill is an expert. “Expert” is a medium-big word. It means that Bill knows a lot about words.

Bill should really be called Mr. DuBay because he is a teacher, and it is good to call teachers Mr. (or Ms. if they are ladies). Mr. DuBay is not like most teachers. He doesn’t teach kids. He goes to office places and teaches us grown-ups. He teaches us how to write. We already know how to write, but we sometimes do it with big words that a lot of people don’t understand.

Here comes the bad part. Mr. DuBay says most people in this country don’t read any better than seventh-graders!

It’s true. Smart people have studied this. But hold on! It’s worse than that!

Seventh-graders can read seventh-grade books if you make them, but they don’t like to do it. That is because it makes them think too much. It is too hard. So, instead, they like to read things that are written for fifth-graders. If you want seventh-grade kids to want to read all by themselves, you have to give them fifth-grade books! So, Mr. DuBay says that to make most grown-ups want to read something, you have to write it so seventh-grade kids will like it. That means you really need to write for fifth-graders!

Big companies pay Mr. DuBay money to tell them that. Then they do what he says. It is called “effective business communication.” “Effective business communication” is a whole lot of great big words that mean talking and writing so other people know what you mean.

I asked Mr. DuBay if it made him sad that people are dumb. He said maybe a little, but that this was just a “fact of life.” He did not mean the facts of life, like your mom told you about that time and it made you feel all icky-doody. Mr. DuBay would not say that. He is a nice man. He meant that it is sad that people do not read real well but that he has a job to do. His job is not to make people read better. His job is to tell us how to talk to all the dumb people.

So, soon when you read things by big companies or by your country, things like your tax form or something you get about stocks you own, it will read more like this.

I said I thought this was condescending. “Condescending” is a great big word that means talking down to. I said maybe it would be better if we could just make people smarter. Mr. DuBay said that would be great, but first things first. He said it is a hard problem because grown-ups watch too much TV, and when they read books it is books by people like Mr. Cussler and Mr. Grisham. Mr. Cussler and Mr. Grisham write like this. There is a test you can do on books, and the test shows their books are for fifth- and sixth-graders. Mr. Cussler and Mr. Grisham are rich.

Mr. Herman Melville did not write for fifth-graders. He died with no money. People thought he was a failure. Isn’t Herman a funny name?

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