Writing advice – Don’t “dumb up”

We all know the phrase “dumbing down”, it’s usually used as a rather dismissive phrase of content that has been written at a lower than expected intellectual level. TV, magazines, websites are said to be dumbing down if they over-simplify their message in an often vain attempt to attract or retain a bigger audience. It’s a miserable and cynical approach.

My approach to writing, and I’ve done a lot of it over the last three decades, has always been to write so that I can understand what I’ve written whether or not I’m writing for a specialist scientific or technical audience or a popular audience. So, when asked for a piece of writing advice recently on Twitter my first thought was to not do the opposite of dumbing down, which I’ve referred to there as dumbing up.

It would be just as cynical to make one’s writing overelaborate, more complicate, flouncy than it needs to be to get your point across. Moreover, there is a major pitfall in attempting to sound clever when you’re not – you end up looking stupid. You might use a word or phrase that you’ve heard for which you don’t know the actual definition and context in which it can be used, a reader who knows that word will know immediately that you’ve got it wrong and summarily dismiss your writing.

You need to know your audience, but perhaps more importantly, you need to know yourself, you need to be aware that your knowledge is limited and to not stretch your understanding beyond your capabilities. Of course, you can educate yourself on a subject and then, and only then, might you stretch your writing a little further, but always within the limits of that knowledge. Be aware of the known knowns, the unknown knowns, the unknown unknowns. Also be aware of bias arising from the very human ability to overestimate one’s abilities, The Dunning–Kruger effect. As they once told you – Keep it simple, stupid. Dumbing up is dumb.