Defense Information School
Basic Public Affairs Writer Course
2002 or 2003 – Hell I can’t Remember
Crap – what did I do now?
“What’s wrong with it, sergeant?”
“Read it, troop. Read it and you tell me what’s wrong with it.”
I glance at the printed copy of my latest writing assignment and feel my emotional gag reflex kick in. The paper is awash in red ink. Horrified, I read through the copy editor’s notes, recognizing where the AP Style Guide has made me its bitch (again) or where my grammar has gone horribly, horribly wrong. I wince my way through the bulk of simplest mistakes and look to where the red pen has slashed whole words from my work.
When I look at my writing instructor for guidance, he points to a particularly bloody section of text. In the margin of the story, he’s scrawled the words “FIFTY DOLLARS” in big capped letters.
“You feel me?” He says and taps the words with his finger.
Confused, I look up at him and shake my head. “Not feeling you, sergeant.”
“Fifty dollar words, Rofkahr. You use too many of them. You need to scale it back. Your writing is pretty good, but the fifty dollar words are killing it.”
I blink. One of the words marked out is “discouraged”. I think about it a moment. It doesn’t feel like a $50 word.
“Son, what’s another word you could have used there?”
I read the passage to myself:
Sweating soldiers gather at the land navigation station, they complain about the
difficultyof the terrain, many claim to be discouragedand doubt they will complete the course.
My mind goes blank. What does he want? Discouraged isn’t a $50 word, it’s good solid fiver, maybe a $10 word at best.
My instructor sees the confusion on my face. “When you’re discouraged – what does that mean?”
His eyes light up. “Right, you’re unhappy. There you go – good $5 word. Now then, about this other one I’ve marked out…”
That’s when I notice he’s also marked out the word “difficulty”.
“Sergeant, are you serious?”
He gives me the hairy eyeball. Of course he’s serious.
“What’s another word for difficult?”
“Exactly. Do you see what you’re doing here?”
I shake my head. “No, sergeant, not really.”
“You’re a college boy aren’t you, Rofkahr?”
Great, here we go again. “Yes.”
The Public Affairs Sergeant grins. “That makes sense. You’ve been to college, you want to be an Army Journalist, you probably read a lot too, don’t you?”
“See, that’s the problem. You’re writing for college people. You’re writing to folks that like to read. In the Army – we have to write to the lowest common denominator. That means you have to write for some one with an 8th grade reading level.”
“Sergeant, I knew what those words meant well before I was in the 8th grade.”
I get a patient nod from the man. “I have no doubt. But this story you’re writing, it has be read by guys that barely passed high school or who don’t have that much english. We have to be sure that they can read it too. You get me?”
I got him. But I didn’t like it.
So time goes by and I become a Public Affairs Sergeant – and later – a Public Affairs Officer. Suddenly, I’m in charge of Army Writers…
“Wait, what the hell, what is this gregarious and mellifluous bullshit?”
“Sir, that means he was was friendly, sociable, and that his words were sweet and honeyed.”
“Troop, you’re writing an article about the goddamn Command Sergeant Major of the Army, it’s against regulations for him to be gregarious or mellifluous. Don’t you think you could have worded this a little differently?”
“You think I should change it?”
“I’ll fix it, sir.”
They get it – but they don’t like it.
It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I really started to change the way that I thought about the problem of the $50 word. Both of my boys, have significant learning disabilities that center around their reading and comprehension skills. Watching them struggle through their homework is painful. Seeing how discouraged, how unhappy my youngest is as he stumbles over words that I take for granted is heartbreaking and confusing.
Words have always been my secret friends. Loyal, funny, seductive, infinitely entertaining. I’ve carried them all over the world with me, illustrated the good and bad of my life within their boundaries. Yet both of my children will be hard pressed to read the paragraph I’ve just written.
Reading is work for them, scary, hard work. And if reading is work aren’t all the words $50 words?
Ultimately, the words you use have to be chosen with the same care that you choose your audience. I want my boys to one day learn to love reading, or at least tolerate it. So when I write for them, my $50 words change. I want them to feel empowered, I want them to feel smart. I want them to WANT to read more.
When I write for you – Stranger from the Internet – (who probably got here while surfing for Pokemon porn) – I use a different word quiver. It’s a funny one, because I don’t know what your $50 words are. Ultimately, I have to hope you like all of the words and that you come back to read more.
In reality? I know most of you are probably walking away with this:
Everyone’s $50 bucks gets spent differently. So when in doubt, don’t be too mellifluous or a Sergeant Major might kick your ass.
And you know – I think that’s probably close enough.
Some random facts that scare the crap out of me:
- U.S. adults ranked 12th among 20 high income countries in composite literacy.
- 21 million Americans can’t read at all, 45 million are marginally illiterate and one-fifth of high school graduates can’t read their diplomas.
- 44% percent of American 4th grade students cannot read fluently, even when they read grade-level stories aloud under supportive testing conditions.
- When the State of Arizona projects how many prison beds it will need, it factors in the number of kids who read well in 4th grade.
- 50% of American Adults can’t read an 8th grade level book.
#1 (Educational Testing Services)
#2 (Department of Justice, 1993)
#3 (National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 1995)
#4 (Arizona Republic 9-15-2004)
#5 (Jonathan Kozol, Illiterate America)
** 3 and 4 are particularly scary for me – my youngest son is in the 4th grade.