Web Content Writing and the Paradox of “Dumbing it Down”

Why writing on the 3rd-grade level is both effective and inaccurate. dumbing down web content Now, we know that sounds harsh, but the old axiom of “always write for a 3rd-grade reading level” holds true in Web content writing just as well as in other forms of copywriting. No one likes to feel like they’re insulting their readers’ intelligence, but it works. So why is it recommended to write as if your readers are buffoons? (Hint: The answer isn’t, “Because they are.” At least, it’s usually not.) There are many reasons why writing Web content “for the dunce-cap” is the preferred and proven most-effective method of getting your point across. Today we’re going to explore just a few of those reasons and explain to you that it may not be about intelligence at all, but about accessibility, and the mind of the modern Internet user.   Stop thinking “dumb” and think “accessible” Accessibility in your content is the single most important factor in getting readers to stick with your website. First and foremost, the “3rd grade” analogy is based on the fact that not everyone speaks English as well as you do. This isn’t a slight on “native” English speakers who can’t be bothered to learn the rules of apostrophes, commas, or common homophones (Although, seriously people. The rules of your vs. you’re aren’t that hard to grasp, really.), but merely an observation that the Web and its content are international tools. Not everyone who views your content will necessarily speak English at the same level as you, and you should be aware that if you want your Web content to be universally appealing, it has to be able to be understood by readers with only a basic fluency in the English language. The “3rd-grade reading level” benchmark is the gold standard for this, but if you’re anything like me, I don’t really recall what my reading level was like in the 3rd grade, so perhaps it would be good to break this down a little more, in terms that are more relevant to you and your customers.

1. Who are your customers? A great way to begin thinking about how you should be writing is to begin with the customers you already have. Who are they? Are they largely Ph.D.-holding professors who spend their days at a particle accelerator or curing diseases? If the answer is yes, you can probably ignore this entire article. But more likely, your customers run the gamut from math teachers and nurses to servers and supermarket employees. Give yourself a target audience – friends of friends, based on the general demographics of your current customer base, and let them read your Web content. How easily they follow your content will prove to be a barometer for the rest of your audience.

2. What brings customers to your site? Why do your customers go looking for the type of content you’re producing, anyway? In short, if you are currently getting customers who found you on the Web, what led them to your site? A simple customer survey, or even an informal, “I’m always curious, what led you to our website?” when appropriate can help you find the answer to this question. Look at the content you have already in place that addresses their specific situation. This content is now provably effective, and you can use it as the standard for content in other areas as well, hopefully gaining more searchers and more customers.

3. What kind of questions do they have? Though you should always try to be thorough (with an eye toward brevity, as no one likes walls of text) when writing Web content, it’s impossible that you’ve answered every question. When a customer comes to you with a question that they couldn’t answer on your website, that’s an opportunity for you to develop new content that addresses that question. Of course, many times your customers will have questions that could have been answered in your Web content, but he or she either couldn’t find the content or didn’t understand it. This is also an opportunity for you to revisit your site layout and existing content and see if you can find a way to revamp it to be more accessible. Bring your “test audience” to your website as well and tell them to look for questions that they cannot answer from your Web content alone.

To be sure, the “3rd-grade” axiom is a tried-and-true method, but it doesn’t work for everyone – many people find that their existing audience will express disappointment if content becomes “too basic.” If this begins to happen to you, it’s a good idea to visit (or revisit) the above methods to establish a baseline for your audience. The best way to write content that is appropriate for your audience is to determine which parts of your content they “get” today, and bring the rest of your Web content in line with those most successful pieces of your website.


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