I worked at my university’s Safety and Security office (
Now the key was making some of these things interesting, perhaps even provocative to the dozen or so readers who might actually come across these publications. The annual report I couldn’t do much with, since it had specifics that needed to be adhered to and these specifics, no matter how hard you tried to dress them up, were never fit for the red carpet. The monthly crime reports were just as difficult, but I had fun coming up with various ways to say stolen since the most common crime on campus was theft. Obviously, I couldn’t use the same word five or six times over, so the monthly crime reports were laden with terms like pilfered, purloined, and my favorite – filched – and to a small extent, people started to notice. My director was pleased at this small effort to “smarten up” the department, and of course, it didn’t stop there. The newsletter was all mine, and while safety and security information and tips weren’t the most interesting or erudite of topics, I did my best to find ways to make it readable.
My coworkers, for the most part, were not college educated. Some were in school at the time (like me) but mostly the officers were made up of retired military men. A lot of them were good people, but several of them scoffed at the idea of higher education, whether from jealousy or a genuine disregard for it, I don’t know. They often derided me for my choices of words in the crime reports and the newsletter. I remember one word choice – ameliorate, caused such a stir amongst the officers that it is amazing World War III did not erupt on that small corner of the campus.
(Imagine thick Southern accents here)“Nobody knows what that word means” they told me. “Nobody will read it if they don’t understand it.”
“This is a college campus” was my reply. “If they don’t know the word, then I assume they know how to use a dictionary.”
“Nobody’s gonna open a dictionary” they said. “It’s a stupid word. You can’t write things for the public that are above a 6th grade level.”
And so on, and so forth. This discussion went on for a couple of days. At the same time, I began to question what it means to write for the general public. Was it true that most people couldn’t read above a 6th grade level? Was it true that people wouldn’t open a dictionary? How would people learn new vocabulary? Do adults really just stop learning new words?
A couple of years later, I had an interview at an advertising agency. After going over my work, and the “sample” they had me prepare, the woman told me that I wasn’t writing for a general audience, and that I belonged in a university or scholastic setting. It was brutal, it was honest, and I was crushed. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t reaching the public. What did this mean? Was I a pedantic snob? Was I wrong to tempt my newsletter reading college audience with words like ameliorate?
I’ve since read articles about journalistic writing that actually said to keep your language simple to reach the broadest audience. The lowest common denominator. Is this really how the media should be treating the public? Is this really what the media should expect of the public? Shouldn’t we do more to raise the bar, instead of keeping it low?
Words have become whores to the media and the publishers who just want to make money, sell the story. Slaves to the lowest common denominator. I wish I could find it now, but I read an article a month or so ago that was reporting on people who had Nobel prize winning manuscripts sent to publishing houses as “fresh” works, and they were all discarded, rejected. Would we see Faulkner published new today? Fitzgerald? Welty? O’Connor? Hemingway? Need I list more?
It really makes you wonder what we are missing, doesn’t it?