by Thomas E. Fountain
Writing for adult unskilled readers, like writing for children, is a highly demanding skill.
It is probably too obvious to need any special comment to the effect that illiteracy is a formidable barrier to the spread of the gospel. Much less obvious is the fact that millions of new and other unskilled readers are cut off from the message of the gospel in its usual written form, by a barrier almost as formidable.
Strangely, this situation is due, not so much to limited reading skills as to the lack of materials prepared at the reading level of the unskilled reader. Most people seem to believe that printed materials are automatically within the grasp of anyone who can read. Writers are particularly apt to think that their work is accessible to all who are literate. Others, who may better understand the problems of the unskilled reader, are often unaware that they may communicate effectively with this kind of reader, provided they will submit to the discipline of applying appropriate techniques to their writing.
Writing for adult unskilled readers, like writing for children, is a highly demanding skill. While the two styles do not resemble each other, neither is for the careless writer. A young graduate of an American school of journalism, and an experienced Mexican teacher of adults, assured me they had never attempted anything so exacting as preparing Sunday school materials for adult new readers.
But the effort to write acceptably for them will always produce some benefits. By paying careful attention to a simple set of rules, the writer may say anything he wants to the unskilled reader. The most sublime truths of the gospel, necessary facts of life, all kinds of useful information, and all but the most obscure arguments may be expounded through this medium.
There is more to writing for unskilled readers than the mastering of a technique. To begin with, the writer will address himself to adults rather than as to children. The only similarity his writing should bear to children’s materials will be his simple vocabulary, his short sentences, and his clear, direct way of expressing himself. For most writers, it requires effort to write clearly. And in materials prepared for the unskilled, there is no place for obscure writing.
On the other hand, nothing in the finished product should resemble the childish style of "Dick and Jane" writing. His simplest words and shortest sentences must be used with force, if he is to capture his reader’s attention and share with him his deep feelings about his subject.
Writing for the unskilled requires words readily understood. Of course, there is no way to guarantee that a reader will in fact understand every word. Perhaps the only way would be for the writer to write specifically for each individual and be completely familiar with his personal vocabulary. But the best practical approach will be to learn the use of published frequency word lists, available in major languages.
In English, the best known list is the one drawn up by Thorndike and Lorge. The best Spanish word list was prepared under the direction of Dr. Ismael Rodriquez-Bou of the University of Puerto Rico. Both lists are lengthy, but the most useful portions consist of the 1500 most frequently used in each language. Such lists should not be used as though they fixed rigid vocabulary lists, but as guides in the choice of words.
Each language area will use slightly different words, selected from the much larger possibilities within the basic language. Since word counts are made by analyzing published materials from all sectors where a language is spoken, they cannot reflect the usage of particular words in smaller language areas. For example, certain words in the Rodriguez-Bou list, seem not to be known outside of Puerto Rico. Yantia and quenepa are not even listed in standard dictionaries! If you are writing for Puerto Rican readers, feel free to use them. Otherwise, eliminate them.
Subject matter is the most important factor in the choice of words. Word lists do not reflect the frequency of words used in any particular context. As you write on any theme, use the words that are natural to that theme. But when unfamiliar terms are employed, they should be accompanied by an adequate explanation.
Technical and other difficult words should be used several times in close connection with their original appearance, so that the reader may become quickly familiar with them. Use new words in slightly different ways and in variant grammatical forms, so the reader will get a better grasp of how they are used.
Sentence length is a second factor to be considered. Many unskilled readers read so slowly that they forget what they read at the beginning of the sentence. Short sentences help them remember the whole and grasp the meaning. In English it is often recommended that sentences average no more than ten words. This limit is too arbitrary and inflexible. Sentence length in itself is not the chief reason why a sentence may be hard to read. It is more likely that a long sentence will be unclear because its various parts do not stand in clear relation to one another.
Nevertheless, long sentences tend to be difficult. Sentences longer than 14 or 15 words ought to be regarded with suspicion anal carefully checked for traces of complexity. In general, the above-mentioned limits may be regarded as a useful rule of thumb, but never as establishing absolute limits.
It is always important to use uncomplicated syntax. Make it a habit to use direct and normal word order. Any variation from the norm should be justified by the need for emphasis, or to call attention to some important idea, or to avoid a cacophony. But never introduce unnatural syntax merely for the sake of variety. Departing from familiar linguistic patterns puts unnecessary strain on the skill of the reader. A sample empirical formula would go like this: Limit all modifiers to one: one adjective or adverb to a phrase, one phrase to a clause, one dependent clause to a sentence. Keep in mind that this expresses maximum, not minimum limits.
Good organization is a sine qua non for all writing, but especially for the unskilled reader. Thus means getting things in their right place. As a character in Alice in Wonderland would say, "Begin at the beginning, continue till you get to the end, then stop." The minds of men are inherently logical, and the writer must proceed on this assumption. He should let the reader know where he is being led, and help him at every point to understand the argument. Whatever is necessary for understanding, should be included in the text. But avoid a condescending tone while attempting to anticipate and eliminate every information gap.
At the outset it will be helpful to inform the reader what he may expect to learn from the article or booklet. Finish your work with some kind of conclusion. This will be as helpful in the written message as it is for any sermon.
Writers are accustomed to edit severely and rewrite their materials. They know that almost nothing they write will turn out the way they wanted it the first time around. Writers for the unskilled should plan to rewrite and simplify their work as a matter of course. Except for the extremely skilled and experienced writer, there is no other way.
For one who writes in an adopted foreign language, it is often helpful to prepare the original draft in his native tongue. Even when writing directly in the adopted language, it is advisable to consider the first draft as a "free exposition." This allows the writer to put all his best thoughts on paper without being subject to the limitations of his reader’s lack of skill. With his best thoughts before him, he will lose little or nothing in the process of simplification.
When the free exposition is ready in either language, the simplification process should begin. First, seek easier words for everything except what is already easy and clear. Eliminate all unnecessary modifiers. Try to substitute literal expressions for figurative language. Recast longer sentences into shorter ones. Use the active voice in preference to the passive or reflexive. Eliminate every sentence, clause, or phrase which contributes nothing to the progress of the article. If a word, phrase, or clause which is eliminated, contains an important idea, it may be better to write a new sentence to feature that idea, instead of allowing unclear phraseology to encumber an otherwise clear sentence.
As in all kinds of writing, the writer must strive to make his work interesting. This includes the selection of subjects known to be of interest to the potential readers. Subjects of special interest may be discovered in overheard conversations, or ferreted out in an informal survey. Many new readers will not know what they would like to read, and may prefer to depend on your judgment. Subjects they need to know about should not be ignored. But above all, the reader should have the privilege of reading what he is interested in, until he develops a desire for reading in the area of his need.
Writing in an interesting manner will involve the use of dialog, character portrayals, people, places and events known to the reader, popular wisdom, anecdotes, fables and legends. All such materials should be used only when they contribute something of value to the article, and never merely for entertainment.
When the text is complete, it should be tested. Legible typewritten or mimeographed copies may be distributed among the best informed of the potential readership. Make them feel that their comments are important to you and will be considered in the final form of the material. If possible, listen while they read it aloud to ethers. Note their hesitations, faulty pronunciations and punctuation, or blank expressions, as clues to what is wrong. Then make appropriate changes.
Before your work is published, it should be illustrated, if possible by a national artist. It is not likely that you will provide too many illustrations; a page of illustration for every page of text, is not excessive. It may be preferable to scatter smaller illustrations through the text instead of using full-page illustrations.
Bold line drawings seem to be best for this purpose. They should have a minimum of background. What there is should be accurate and in keeping with the culture of the people. Action photos make excellent illustrations, but are harder to produce and expensive to print. Well drawn stickfigures have often been used effectively as illustrations.
The printed copy should make use of the best available type styles and sizes. The reader must be able to see and distinguish what is printed, if your work is to be of any value to him. New readers are often confused by ornate type styles, and even by the horizontal terminations on ordinary print. Often the reader’s eyesight will be his principal problem. You may have to help him get glasses!
Never use type smaller than 12 or 14 points. Even then, have the printer space several extra points between lines. Give preference to the plainest type styles, particularly the Gothic family, of which "sans serif" is the best known. Modern Roman styles are second best. Avoid italics. For special emphasis, use boldface types. Never use solid capitals except for titles. Old English and ornamental types are least legible of all.
When you boil it all down, the basic idea in writing for unskilled readers, is to make it easy for them to get the message. Whatever you can do to promote ease in reading and maximum understanding, will be the best service you can render.
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