Sunday, April 12, 2015

Plain Style For Dummies

Written by T. Lorenz

The main goal of plain style writing is to make information for readers to understand. There’s no purposeful ambiguity, ladder of abstraction, or talking in circles. The plain style cuts out the fluff and makes room for the useful and necessary. In order to see how the plain style is used in the real world, I decided to take a closer look into a series that has been around since the early 1990s - the For Dummies series.
The For Dummies series prides itself on experts translating confusing material and making it easier to understand. I chose to analyze the article “How to Change Your Facebook Cover Photo” and the strategies that went in to writing the article. The author of the text, Carolyn Abram, wrote the entire book Facebook for Dummies 5th Edition. She started working at Facebook in its infancy and wrote the other previous editions of Facebook for Dummies. Abram is considered an expert and was able to disseminate Facebook into step-by-step instructions for those whom are not tech savvy or familiar with how Facebook operates.
The For Dummies series was initially started up as a solution to new technological innovations in the late 80s. With new software, hardware, and other electronic advances, For Dummies recognized that the gap needed to be bridged for regular users and these advancements. The company states on their Success Story page:
“From the start, For Dummies was a simple, yet powerful concept: Relate to the anxiety and frustration that people feel about technology by poking fun at it with books that are insightful and educational and make difficult material interesting and easy. Add a strong dose of personality, a dash of comic relief with entertaining cartoons, and — voilá — you have a For Dummies book.”
Through this statement, it appears that the whole intention of the company is to dumb down information and make it digestible. I would like to argue that the even though plain language style is used well throughout the article, classifying readers as “dummies” is not necessary. The information is written for a seventh grader to understand, which also happens to be the average reading level of Americans. The experts of For Dummies set themselves apart from the “dummie” readers by “stooping” to the plain language level of writing. Thus, plain language is used to separate the smart (experts and technical sphere) from the “dummies” (regular people and the public sphere).
For Dummies claims that they “bring the how-to brand you know and trust online, where you’ll find our proven experts presenting even the most complex subjects in plain English.” I put “How to Change Your Facebook Cover Photo” into a plain style app that “makes writing bold and clear.” The statistics looked promising. The article scored an average grade level of seven. Out of the 39 sentences, four were very hard to read and nine were hard to read. The passive voice was not used. The Hemingway Editor app found that there were no phrases that had simpler alternatives. To look closely into the article, I decided to search for plain style strategies that were used by Abram in her writing.
There are quite a few instances of the active voice that appear in “How to Change Your Facebook Cover Photo.” The active voice clearly distinguishes the subject of the sentence and the verb. The article used the sentences: “You need a cover photo. Your timeline will fill up shortly.” The plain style used in these sentences makes it easy to figure out who needs what and what will fill up when. By eliminating the slow sentence openings and prepositional strings, the author was able to get straight to the point of her article.
Another strategy that was used in this article was parallelism. “How to Change Your Cover Photo” was written in a list format of steps that the reader should take to reach the end goal. Each bullet point began with a command verb clearly directing what the reader should do next. For example, a step in the process is “Click the Change Cover button.” There is no ambiguity in this statement. Readers are told to take specific action. After each step, there is a supplemental amount of information tell readers what to do next in order be able to reach the next step in the process. Parallelism allows for the information in this article to follow a similar format for readers. This equally emphasizes the importance of each step that has to be followed by Facebook users.
These strategies are used to make the information easier to read and retain for the audience. So, why does the series insist on using the word "dummie” when it comes to referring to the audience of their series? Does a “dummie” not know how to read anything but the plain style in writing? It is nearly impossible for one to know everything about technology, so why would a series choose to label their readers so negatively? After all, those “dummies” are what keep the series alive today. Ultimately, the For Dummies series associates “dummies” and plain language in the same context, being that only those in the public sphere want information dumbed down because they can’t handle the intensity that comes with technical explanations of technology.
           “Dummie” is not necessary because it raises the idea that plain style dumbs down information when in reality it makes everything clearer. A person is not dumb if they don’t know how to change a tire or can’t figure out where to click to change a photo on Facebook. They are simply people, searching for answers that are as clearly stated as possible. So instead of associating plain style with “dummies”, the series, as well as technical and public spheres of communication, should change their approach to something like Facebook For People.

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