On Not Dumbing Things Down

This morning I finished watching season 3 of A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix. I found it to be winsome, which here means sweet-natured and likable. One of the many things that I liked about the books, which the show does a good job of capturing, is the juxtaposition of that gentleness against the presumptive gloom. The thing that I enjoy inimitably, which here means that I take more pleasure from it than I do from most other things, is that it doesn’t try to dumb things down.

On Not Dumbing Things Down

My wife Katie and I both grew up in homes where children were not talked down to. If we didn’t understand something, we were expected to ask questions. She was fortunate enough to have a set of encyclopedias in the house, to look things up at will. I only had a dictionary, but would write things down so that I could check words and concepts later, at school or the library. No adult ever put more on us that we could handle, or that was appropriate for our age or stage of intellectual development. We simply weren’t infantilized.

Over the past few years I have been advised, on a number of occasions and by multiple people, that I shouldn’t bring the full force of my vocabulary to bear. While I admit that I am prone to being gratuitously verbose (an unfortunate side effect of being paid by the word and/or page in my freelance days), I object to being challenged on my word choices. The assumption these people make is that my audience will have difficulty with unfamiliar terms. They see it as a bug; I call it a feature.

“They’ll think you’re pretentious,” they said. “People will assume that you’re showing off, or trying to prove that you’re smarter than they are”. Having met the internet, I know that select people are going to think what they want, with or without evidence. One must be true to one’s self, regardless of what the haters and trolls think. My only response, time and again, was to shrug and reply, “I guess those people aren’t my audience, then, if their response to my word choices would be to become adversarial.”

I should also note that not one customer, actual or potential, has ever directly called me out over a matter of vocabulary. No hate mail, no death threats, no refusal to purchase my products that I am aware of. These admonitions to dumb things down all came from armchair quarterbacks, seeking to be helpful.

An Informative Anecdote

When I was in high school, one of the guys in my gaming group was a special education student. I don’t know what his exact situation was, but I know that he had difficulty with reading. He loved Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, though. Every session he’d show up with a massive duffel bag, and begin pulling out his gear. A pencil case, a dice bag, and a clip board with his character sheets, of course. The three Great Volumes of the time, the Players Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Masters Guide. Finally, he would draw out a massive desktop dictionary (this was before smart phones, apps, and the like) accompanied by a magnifying class that looked as if it should be wielded by a cartoon detective.

Any time he came across a word he was unfamiliar with, he would consult the dictionary. It was one of those college editions, with every word imaginable defined in tiny print. Hence the magnifying glass. He would then pull out a notebook, and transcribe the word and its meaning into it. If you’re at all familiar with first edition AD&D, you know that Gygax et.al. pulled no punches with the vocabulary. I was an honor students (for context, not a brag), and even I learned things from those books, the DMG in particular.

By my senior year, my friend had memorized huge swaths of the text. These were not light books. Two columns, small type, dense copy. He knew every feature of every character class. You could quiz him on the attack modes of any monster, how every spell worked, what any magic item did. He had read those books over and over, with his trusty dictionary and his composition books filled with meticulous notes.

All of which is the longest possible way for me to say no, I shan’t be dumbing anything down. I will strive to ensure that everything I write is clear, concise, and easy to use. What I won’t be doing is editing my word choices for fear that someone won’t know what something means and might lack the initiative to go look it up.


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