Quite often when I’m running a writing workshop or taking a writing brief from a museum or gallery, I run into concerns about ‘dumbing down’. A lot of curators are worried that writing simply or with fewer words will diminish their ideas into the written equivalent of spaghetti hoops.
What I’d call clear writing (rather than simple writing) was drummed into me by my dad, who was an advertising copywriter back in the glorious 80s heyday of the ad world. I can’t remember his exact words (sorry, Dad) but he stressed how vital it was to write as minimally and elegantly as possible. (As the man who coined the Asda price ‘bum pat’ that conveyed so much in so few words, I think he knew his onions on this.)
I said to one workshop group recently that no-one accuses poets of dumbing down and they’re, generally, attempting to condense complex ideas into a few words. That did make the amateur poet in the group smile, but not everyone looked convinced.
Then today on a dog walk it occurred to me that it’s because the writers who worry about this have an ideal reader in mind – an educated, well-read reader who would be disappointed by any simplification and appreciate the writer’s well-turned phrases, long, elegant sentences and ostentatious displays of well-earned knowledge. Of course, we all write to an ideal reader – I’m picturing you now drinking a mug of strong Yorkshire tea and scratching a middle-aged lab absent-mindedly behind the ear. But museums and galleries, though they may not have begun democratically, should really have a democratic vision now.
So the person reading the very long sentences and insider terms the curator fought me tooth and nail to keep may not be the director of the National Gallery. They may be in the early stages of dementia and disoriented, seething with fury at the patronising behaviour of people young enough to be their daughter (or indeed their actual daughters) but powerless to force people to respect them and not see them as a meek, little old lady. They may be in the midst of PTSD after the terrifying, dangerous three-day birth of their healthy daughter and the two late miscarriages that preceded it, and feeling fragmented and lost. They may be 16 years old, dyslexic and interested in art, and being made to feel stupid may be a trigger for an anxiety attack that will last two weeks and take the important exam they’re sitting from a C grade to a D. They may have a different colour skin to everyone they see in the paintings and everyone they see working in the museum and hope to see, just once, a hint that this stuff is for them too.
Writing clearly, with words in an order that we can follow easily, sentences broken up into different lengths to keep our attention, the meaning of unfamiliar terms made clear by the words around them and any unwitting assumptions that the writer has about the world being made up of people exactly like them removed, is a courtesy. It will help someone feel the passion of the writer’s knowledge and be brought along with it, not left behind. Writing with generosity and humility may help an anxious 16-year-old boy stay cheerful and confident, pass his English exam and start an art foundation course. They may help an 80-year-old who’s losing a sense of her identity hold onto it a bit longer and stride out feeling a glimmer of her old sense fluttering at the corners of her being. They may help someone feel that this is for them.
They might, in a really tiny way, make the world a very slightly better place.
Image c. Chris Buck