When I last took a writing course it was probably more than 20 years ago, when I graduated with college degree in English. Given that I had more than two decades’ worth of writing under my belt, I figured I’d be pretty good at the skill when I decided to make extra income with it.
Little did I know, my ego was in for a bruising under the editorial pen. There was the typical ticky-tacky stuff like comma placement and paragraph structure. However, what was more apparent, as if I went through a literary time machine, was that the writing rules had change considerably.
Dummy Down vs. Smarten Up
Many of the big changes between old writing (i.e. what was taught 20 years ago) versus today’s involves “dummying down” content. A number of editors and webmasters specifically want content material written in a manner that meets an 8th grade standard of reading or less. This includes:
- Using simple sentences and avoiding compound sentences.
- Relying heavily on simple words and action verbs.
- Keeping paragraphs small in size.
- Relying on heavy use of subtitles for quick scan-reading.
For a person trained under old writing rules, it felt like going backwards when I first started writing for editors again. Don’t get me wrong; it makes perfect sense to write clear, simple content to attract the largest amount of readers for websites. However, the dummy down approach has been a trend that appeared in the early 2000s and has become the standard expectation of writers for hire today.
Watch Out, the Future May Be the Opposite
Ironically, the next generation of writers and editors 20 years from now may say otherwise. Just looking at the new requirements of writing under the new Common Core standards, a reverse education is likely to occur. One of the main points within those new teaching standards involves training children and teens to write with more intelligence, reversing the “dummy down” direction. So while the standard today involves simple sentences and avoiding archaic-sounding words, the standard tomorrow may be a different pendulum swing.
Anticipating the Differences
Smart writers crossing educational and generational differences will anticipate the above differences by first figuring out what buyers or editors want. Previous samples that match desired writing provide a great window into anticipating these requirements.
Secondly, older writers should remember their college writing lessons and be proactively flexible to change. Being ready to twist in the wind of change makes a writer stronger as well as more capable of taking on different jobs.
Finally, for writers who think they know their stuff after a decade of practice, it doesn’t hurt to go back and receive some refresher training. Not only does new training highlight new standards expected, it can also give an experienced writer new ideas of how to write and deliver quality product. Updating one’s knowledge of changing writing criteria can broaden a professional writer’s understanding of the skill. It can also give a person a bit of a laugh as the old becomes new again.
Tom L is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.