23 December 2010
21 December 2010
16 December 2010
And what it comes down to, as he says, is ‘context, convention and circumstance are all’.
What do you think? We’d love to hear.
Watch Stephen Fry
This guy has been bugged by English spelling all his life. And it’s a long life…
Watch Ed Ronthaler
14 December 2010
We were thrilled to take part in the ‘Writing the Future’ colloquium on 2 and 3 December 2010. The colloquium drew together a wide range of people involved with teaching writing in the tertiary education sector, along with a few of us from the public and private sectors.
Mary McLaughlin attended the whole conference, and other Write people staffed a stall at the venue. Duncan Sarkies was also there, and presented a paper on the creative writing process. For all of us, it was a great opportunity to meet peers, gather ideas, and share perspectives.
The range of papers was terrific, with five keynote papers and 17 parallel sessions over the 2 days. Some particular highlights for us were:
• Gregory O’Brien on the relationships between poetry, art, art criticism, and non-fiction
• Natalie Savery on supporting dyslexic students’ academic writing in tertiary classes
• Elizabeth Gray on the intersections between creative and professional writing
• Peter Wood on being an academic writing on architecture for a public audience
• Polly Kobleva on marking as a writing process
• Anna Taylor on the art and craft of writing.
And as with all great conferences, we enjoyed the thoughtful organisation, good food, and the friendly, collegial atmosphere. Thanks to the Tertiary Writing Network for running such a successful event.
‘Not just words’ — Mary sums up her paper on document design and plain English
In the paper, I’ve talked largely about plain English and design in terms of function — in terms of how they work. I’ve looked at questions like:
• does this document work well for the reader?
• can the reader use the form?
• are language and design working together to help the reader get the main messages?
But at its best, plain English does more than work well. It appeals to the senses and the mind, to our human desires for simplicity, grace, elegance, space. And I believe that when we focus on design as part of the way we communicate, it brings home to us the aesthetic value of clear, precise writing. It reminds us that we don’t just want to convey a message; we want our readers to feel refreshed, calm, cared for. We want our readers to savour our words … and the forms in which we present them.
Read English: you're doing it wrong
03 December 2010
02 December 2010
I’ve been tootling (there’s a Helenism!) about on Twitter for the last few months getting to grips with how it works—partly for fun and partly for Write.
This clip, Wellington love letter, was first tweeted about roughly a month ago. It’s now had more than 41,000 hits. The power of social media—enjoy!
01 December 2010
Mary McLaughlin will be presenting a paper titled 'Not just words: document design and the plain English of the future'. We'll also have a stall at the colloquium, so if you're there too, stop and say 'hi'.
Check back next week and we'll let you know how the colloquium went.
You can find out more about the colloquium at:
28 November 2010
The conference was organised by the European Commission. Check out their useful booklet with advice on how to write clearly. You'll find it at the link below, under the heading 'Clear writing guide'.
16 November 2010
To find out more, visit
15 November 2010
11 November 2010
Usability most often applies to websites. When we're not talking about websites, usability is generally called universal design.
Plain English and usability go hand-in-hand. For people to understand your website, form, manual, email, presentation, or report, you need to communicate clearly. And you need to make sure that your whole audience finds your communication easy to use.
Some usability experts are Whitney Quesenbery, Jakob Nielsen, and Gerry McGovern. New Zealand companies that specialise in usability are AccEase and Optimal Usability.
For information about World Usability Day, see http://worldusabilityday.org/
For information about universal design, see http://www.accease.com/pmwiki.php?n=Publications.UniversalDesign
For information about Whitney Quesenbery, see http://wqusability.com/
For information about Jakob Nielsen, see http://useit.com/
For information about Gerry McGovern, see http://giraffeforum.com/wordpress
For information about AccEase, see http://accease.com/
For information about Optimal Usability, see http://optimalusability.com/
03 November 2010
Several months of work later, here are the results of our project published on the Clarity website. Watch for more projects from around the world to be published soon.
01 November 2010
Check out this entertaining article posted on the Matador Network with words from many different languages.
28 October 2010
‘This is a triumphant moment for all those who support plain language use,’ said Dr Annetta Cheek, Chair of the Center for Plain Language, long-time advocate for plain writing. ‘The Act defines plain writing as writing that the audience can understand and use because it is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain writing.’
- You can see:
the official statement by the White House Press Secretary at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/10/13/statement-press-secretary
- the full text of the Act at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgibin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=111_cong_bills&docid=f:h946enr.txt.pdf.
19 October 2010
Clarity 2010 – Day two
The second day of the Clarity conference continued with themes linking government, web writing, and training developments happening around the world. A recurring theme was how to show the $ benefits of using plain language.
The plenary session got a taste of some of the studies Joe Kimble’s updated book with cite when it comes out next year.
Topping off a very successful conference was the gala dinner held at a palace just out of central Lisbon. We were able to sample typical Portugese food in a stately setting with our new friends.
As night went on, plain language specialists showed what a multi-talented bunch they are with impromptu singing, guitar playing, and even a performance of a Victor Borge classic—‘Inflationary Language’, before we danced the night away!
A natural follow-up for the participants at this conference will be the next PLAIN conference, to be held in Stockholm in June 2011. Organisation is well under way, and the call for papers will be out soon.
18 October 2010
Clarity 2010 - Day one
The first day of the Clarity 2010 conference has gone very well. We have seen some fascinating presentations on everything from explanations of world water footprints using information design to resources on disaster preparedness.
Other highlights were the latest report from the international plain language working group, updates on what's happening in places as diverse as Sweden, Brazil, and South Africa, and commentary on language used during the global financial crisis.
Our small New Zealand delegation is making the most of the opportunity to talk to people from around the world, sharing our experience and learning from others.
And our hosts from Portugues Claro are doing a fabulous job of providing translations for all sessions, catering with delicious food and coffee, and greeting every request with a smile.The conference venue is the Universidade Nova de Lisboa with its award winning backdrop of Lisbon and wonderfully mild weather and you have the perfect setting for an international conference!
05 October 2010
These figures are familiar — but did you think about the able-bodied reader who left their reading glasses at home?
A conversation with Robyn Hunt and Mike Osborne at AccEase has got us thinking about what’s involved in making information accessible, and who needs it.
AccEase works with clients who communicate with disabled customers. Their watchword is ‘All of the information to all of the people, all of the time’.
When they talk about people with disabilities, their list is longer than you may first consider. What about people who cannot hold a page or a pen because of shakes or fine motor problems? Or who have a cognitive disability caused by their medication? People often assume that blind people read Braille — but the Braille-reading population in New Zealand numbers only a few hundred.
Then there are other barriers to accessing information. Less than half of New Zealanders have their own internet connection, and those that do may be using old or non-standard equipment. Around 40% of working-age New Zealanders have difficulty reading.
Mention ‘accessibility’ and people think ‘websites’ — but accessibility is an issue for paper-based documents, and any other way information is presented. Did you know that glossy paper can create glare for a reader who has low vision? Or that grey text on white is as difficult to read on paper as it is on screen?
Accessibility is a feature of plain English. The reader may access your words on a website, in a form, or read aloud by a human or a machine. You want the reader to read the words once, understand them, and act on them.
Robyn describes disabled people as ‘the canary in the coalmine’ for accessibility. If the words and their format don’t work for disabled people, the rest of the population may struggle too.
Visit the AccEase website
Visit Robyn Hunt's blog
01 October 2010
When I first started teaching grammar, it was to people who had English as a second language. They craved rules. They wanted me to tell them exactly when they were supposed to use a certain verb tense, and exactly how many exceptions there were to that rule — and could I please list the exceptions?
So I took the ‘rule’ approach to teaching punctuation. I had my three rules for when to use commas, and specific scenarios for when you put the full stop inside the quotation mark, and when you put the full stop outside.
And then in the last few weeks, real life has come along with a bang. I’ve been out of the classroom and into the world of editing, and I’ve realised that, while the rules work most of the time, sometimes they just don’t fit. What people have done in their documents doesn’t work according to the rule book, but the punctuation works perfectly well anyway.
I’ve looked up lots of different books on punctuation, and I’m amazed at how often the authors disagree over the finer points.
So now, humbler but wiser, I’m not throwing the rule book away, but I’m more open to creative punctuation. After all, the only reason punctuation’s there is to help get the message across more clearly.
24 September 2010
Several factors affect legibility and readability, and a much broader range of fonts are now available to organisations than ever in the past. Factors include point size, x-height, leading, character spacing, alignment, and typestyles that can affect legibility and readability of type.
Because of this variety of factors, it is very difficult to design a research study that gives a definitive conclusion on such a fundamental issue as ‘serif’ or ‘sans serif’. Indeed, in a literature review of readability research I did some years ago, I found strong research-based opinions for both extremes, plus ‘it doesn’t matter’ in the middle.
This is a good literature review of over 50 empirical studies.
In this study, the researcher made interesting discoveries about the impact of point size, and gives reasons for preferring sans-serif faces for online publication.
Wheildon’s ‘Type and Layout’, published in 1995, and based on research done in Australia, has some interesting findings. I wrote an article on it at the time, a rewritten version of which is still on the web.
Wheildon is a strong supporter of serif fonts in print, but his research has been criticised for using a less legible font as his basis. However, his conclusions on line length and line spacing are strongly supported by researchers across the entire spectrum of opinion.
19 September 2010
So says South African Christine Leonardi, freelance writer and communications practitioner, in a brilliant article about the need for plain language in corporate communications.
Read the article
07 September 2010
In Friday's ceremony, held at Parliament, the Commerce Commission collected an award for the worst 'Brainstrain' website and The Office for Senior Citizens collected one for worst 'Brainstrain' document. Both organisations vowed to change their ways --- a great result!
Read about the winners and finalists for all the positive awards too.
And special congratulations to the Office of the Auditor General for winning the supreme award for Plain English Champion: Best Organisation!
02 September 2010
These are the words we want everyone to use this week.
Why? Because this is Plain English Week --- a time when we celebrate the best, and refuse to accept the worst. You have a right to understand. So if someone gives you something that is poorly written, say: 'What do you mean?'
Rachel McAlpine, chair of the lobby group Plain English Power, has written about Plain English Week here: http://contented.com/contented/2010/plain-language-even-buskers-need-it/
So has Robyn Hunt, a tireless advocate for making technology accessible: http://www.plainenglish.org.nz/index.php.
This one is Robyn, too: http://www.accease.com/pmwiki.php?n=Main.WhatsHot
The highlight of the week will be the WriteMark Plain English Awards, on in the Banquet Hall of Parliament tomorrow night. Watch the Awards website or your newspapers to find out the best --- and the worst --- plain English organisations, documents, and websites in New Zealand. Read more here: http://business.scoop.co.nz/2010/08/19/new-zealand-a-world-plain-english-leader
So why not join Plain English Power?
And remember to celebrate Plain English Week by saying: 'What do you mean?'
23 August 2010
09 August 2010
Am I preaching to the converted? Are you itching to transform the way your business writes, but unsure where to start? Here’s our approach to getting that transformation under way.
Read ‘Making a business case for plain English’
03 August 2010
Moira’s a research fellow and PhD candidate in the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago in Wellington. Her research is about the food environment for children’s sport. She started her research this year and recently won the Wellington heat of the 3MT competition.
What’s the 3MT competition all about?
Students speak about their thesis topic for 3 minutes and are allowed to show just one PowerPoint slide. They need to communicate the essence of their research in a succinct, engaging presentation. They’ll answer the question ‘what’s your thesis about?’ in a way that a lay audience can readily understand.
Judges look for appropriate communication style. They consider how well the audience understands the purpose and scope of the research topic, and whether the presentation makes the audience want to know more. Speak for longer than 3 minutes and you’ll be disqualified!
What are the benefits of 3MT?
3MT is all about effective communication. Researchers develop their communication skills. The audience gets to hear about research projects in language they understand. The competition helps to bring research into the mainstream — and to bring plain language into the academic world!
This is only the second year of the competition in New Zealand, but public interest is growing. Students will have a studio audience of 400 at the Dunedin finals, which will be on Cue TV (SKY Chanel 110) in early September. More details soon.
We wish Moira well for the next round of the competition! She’ll be going to Dunedin for the final in late August. The winner goes on to compete in Brisbane at the Australasian final. Our fingers are crossed!
29 July 2010
The food diary activity is finished now, but its memory lingers on. Carrot sticks regularly feature in the lunch box — long may they continue to be the snack of choice. As for the moods — pretty good overall.
So I hope the food diary will have a lasting impact. Perhaps not enough to banish junk food forever, but enough to make a noticeable difference for a few days that might stretch to weeks. Maybe carrots and cooking will become a habit.
For plain English writing (well, this blog is called ‘Write clearly’, after all), the equivalent of the food diary is a writing standard. It makes you think carefully about what you write. A writing standard consists of a few clear statements against which you can measure features of your own or others’ writing. Is your purpose clear at the beginning? Does the order of your information work for the reader of your document? Are your sentences short and straightforward?
By following a few essential principles of plain English — nutrition for writing — you can improve your writing so it works well for the reader.
Once you’ve used a writing standard several times, you’ll find the principles start to become second nature. Plain English will become a healthy habit your readers will thank you for. Carrots, anyone?
26 July 2010
So when I’m talking about writing letters, I find myself thinking about words and expressions in a different way. What you get on paper looks different from what you get on screen.
I’m not sure if that’s why I get to see so many customer- service letters that don’t look like customer service at all. I’m talking about the so-called standard letters — written as a one-size-fits-all. These often have such a bureaucratic, mass-produced effect that I sometimes wonder if they were produced as a joke.
Letter writers should consider being generous
I learned something about writing letters at a forum I attended recently. The presenter suggested that writers should be generous to their readers — and that they could rate that generosity on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being ungenerous and 10 being very generous.
I decided I’d try out this tip at my next training session. My participants were from a customer service area and their job was to write to people who had failed to fill in a questionnaire, even when they had received repeated written requests. The writers in my class didn’t like the standard letter that had been generated to cover such situations, and they wanted to come up with a new one.
So for a couple of hours we changed, rearranged, and added to the content. One person suggested that perhaps the recipient of the questionnaire hadn’t understood the instructions for filling it in. Another added that perhaps the recipient didn’t give as much importance to answering the questionnaire as the sender did. And someone else said that the recipient was being asked to go out of their way to answer the questionnaire, and that the letter we rewrote should reflect that.
Writers felt good and so would readers
Participants were thrilled with the rewritten letter. Compared with the original, it was almost unrecognisable. It was comprehensive and considerate. The writer, and the organisation behind the writer, came across as not only thoughtful, but human.
I found myself asking the question ‘On a scale of 1 – 10, where 1 is not generous and 10 is very generous, how would you rate this letter?’
Participants unanimously gave our new version a 9 or a 10. And I wondered if our teaching of plain English — in customer- service letters and in all sorts of other documents — could go one step further in thinking about the reader’s needs.
We could encourage our writers to be not just courteous to readers but to go one step further and be generous to their readers.
16 July 2010
15 July 2010
14 July 2010
12 July 2010
01 July 2010
Coming from a family of scientists who write with clarity and lightness, I’ve been thinking lately about how a scientific mindset can be a valuable tool in writing plain English. Far from avoiding words, I believe that scientists can harness their strengths to produce clear, well-organised documents. Approaching a document logically can help you over the twin hurdles that face many writers; how to start, and what to say next.
When we look at a document at Write, we start by thinking about structure and purpose. Has the writer told the reader why they wrote the document and what they want the reader to do with it? Does the writer state the main messages clearly at the start? Do points follow each other in a logical order, with a strong, clear argument? If you can do these things, and then find direct, precise, shapely language to convey your thoughts, you’ll be well on the way to plain English. The basic disciplines of careful design and a logical approach are central to the task of writing — as they are to science.
But are we doing ourselves a disservice by dividing ourselves into scientists and arty types in the first place? In Other People’s Trades, Primo Levi — chemist and writer — discusses the false divide between science and literature. He argues that the two cultures have much to offer each other, that at their best they operate hand-in-hand, and always have done.
This is an unnatural schism, unnecessary, harmful, the result of distant taboos and the Counter-Reformation, when they do not actually go back to a petty interpretation of the Biblical prohibition against eating a certain fruit. It did not concern Empedocles, Dante, Leonardo, Galileo, Descartes, Goethe and Einstein, the anonymous builders of the Gothic cathedrals and Michelangelo; nor does it concern the good craftsmen of today, or the physicists hesitating on the brink of the unknowable.
Levi, P. Other People’s Trades. 2nd ed. London: Abacus, 1991: viii.
Perhaps our most powerful writing comes when we dismantle the barriers around our identities and disciplines, when we use fully all the writing muscles available to us. Just look at what can happen when the scientist steps beyond logic into creativity and intuition; when the poet brings focus and an eye for detail to flights of the imagination.
22 June 2010
I’m sure you’ve heard the argument before—that this tendency to ‘dumb everything down’ has gone too far.
I found myself chopping carrots rather furiously as I reacted to the suggestion that a piece of long-winded, verbose writing is somehow more intelligent, subtle, and on a higher level than succinct, clear writing. Dumbing down is obviously seen as inferior. The word ‘dumb’ is insulting, and dumb writing is supposedly only for idiots. Or is it?
It’s time to defend simplicity, I told the carrots. There’s a world of difference between dumbing writing down, and clarifying it so that readers can easily understand it.
Let’s be clear about what we mean here. No one in their right mind would suggest that a piece of literature should be rewritten to simplify it. Even notoriously difficult novels that make readers work hard to comprehend them have their place. I remember struggling through classics like Finnegan’s Wake when I was studying. I had to reread paragraphs many times over, and was still mystified about what the author, James Joyce, meant. But I’d defend absolutely Joyce’s right to express himself in whatever writing style he chooses.
Literature, however, is very different from business writing — or any writing that aims to provide information.
If you want people to read and understand what you have written, why would you write in a style that prevents that happening? Perhaps because writing simply is harder, and more demanding. Blaise Pascal famously said ‘I have made this longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter’. Many writers have expressed the same idea; that short, clear writing is harder to produce than something long-winded. Anyone who has sweated over choosing just the right words to express something knows how true that is.
Sometimes, the desire to show off is greater than the desire to communicate. We’ve all read those wordy, overblown pieces where the writer is obviously determined to demonstrate just how highly educated they are. Often, they only succeed in confusing or boring the reader.
The jargon that comes with most specialist areas is an added barrier to understanding. Jargon can exist as a short-cut to a lengthy explanation, but more often it’s a way of showing that the writer is part of the exclusive club that understands what the jargon means.
And writing that glorifies sentences with so many sub-clauses that the original subject and object are buried is usually not only dull but also sloppy. It’s simply not necessary to write sentences that are 10 lines long. When I see this sort of writing, I itch to cut a swathe through it with a red pen!
So let’s not buy into the ‘dumbing down’ attack. When we’re talking about writing that’s simple and clear, it’s not about dumbing down, but powering up!
19 June 2010
I have to confess that a book title like *How to write plain English: a book for lawyers and consumers by Rudolph Flesch, gets me excited. Luckily I spend much of my working life surrounded by people who become equally sparkly-eyed at such a find.
The book didn’t disappoint. It’s filled with wonderful examples of legal texts, including many contracts and regulations that were successfully re-written in plain English. It even has a section on how to write plain math.
But the very best bit was in the Foreword. ‘Life treats people unequally. Some barely make it through senior high, or perhaps a few years at university. Others go to the finest schools of graduate learning and become doctors, lawyers, or college professors. But even for this latter group, there is hope. They can learn to write in plain English.’
Actually, as much as we chuckled, we know that last sentence is true — some of the strongest advocates for plain English among our clients are lawyers! Times are changing.
And yes. The author of the book, Rudolph Flesch, is the very same person who pioneered the concept of document readability and invented the Flesch Readability Formula. The book may have been written in 1979 but it’s as relevant today as it was then.
*Flesch, R. How to write plain English: a book for lawyers and consumers. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.
08 June 2010
We’re renovating a house at the moment. I am amazed at how I’m making decisions — I just realised I’m choosing to use companies’ services based on how clear their writing is.
I emailed about eight property valuers asking for quotes. One valuer rang me and answered my questions over the phone. She was just lovely, and she mentioned she’d follow up the phone call with an email. As soon as I got the email, I was put off. The email was full of phrases she didn’t use on the phone to me, like ‘should you wish to proceed’ and ‘we can sometimes expidite this if required'. She suddenly seemed pompous, stiff, and distancing. I guess I was also put off by assuming that it would be difficult to read her report after the valuation.
By contrast, transferring the mortgage to Kiwibank has been a pleasant experience. All the paperwork I’ve received from Kiwibank has spoken to me like a normal person talking to another normal person. It has a direct, clear tone, with few complex words. Very little in the writing has confused me. The Kiwibank lawyers’ documents are written clearly too. I’m most impressed, and I’ve discovered I look forward to receiving their documents in the mail.
I can’t be the only person who judges service companies by their writing. To me, it makes such sense to write clearly — to write how you would speak if you were face to face with a client. Writing clearly means you don’t distance your clients or make them feel stupid because they don’t understand the terms you use. Writing clearly means your clients feel like your equals. They feel you respect them. So they warm to you, and you get their business.
31 May 2010
Two seemingly unrelated things happened in my Saturday morning: my daughter got one of her first-year university papers back, and I joined Twitter.
My daughter was a little disappointed with her grade, and rightly so (not that I’m a biased mother!). If the marker’s comments are anything to go by, my daughter was marked harshly for seemingly minor mistakes. The comment that stood out for me was ‘short sentences are meaningless’.
‘Self-care is a human need.’ was one of the offending sentences in the essay. The sentence contains one idea, and is grammatically correct. In fact, it was the first sentence of a paragraph and the other sentences in the paragraph supported it. And it also neatly linked the topic of the paragraph it started with the one before.
Feeling somewhat vexed for my daughter, I then distracted myself by joining Twitter.
Twitter loves short sentences! You have just 140 characters in a tweet. People tweeting (are they twits?), write short, informative sentences. Long rambling sentences just don’t work on twitter.
Actually, I personally don’t think long sentences work particularly well anywhere—even in academic writing. But, ultimately, I think I should be grateful to people like my daughter’s marker—they keep me in a job.
23 April 2010
21 April 2010
One of my personal favourites is the term 'Criminal Intelligence'.
Perhaps the wartime headline of "Churchill flies back to front" was intended as a joke, but I presume that the item in a Scottish paper complaining that "The Duchess wore nothing to show she was the recipient of four Scottish honours", if genuine, was unintended.
A colleague drew my attention to an advertisement for a "preloved women's fashion show", and I hope the preloved women who attended had a good time.
But sometimes these things seem to go beyond a joke, as in the badly named British institution, the National Centre for Domestic Violence.
Sometimes near enough is really not good enough, and we have to think carefully about the effect we make, at the risk of being unintentionally offensive.
In the remainder of the article, Laurie talks about word pairs where a noun and a verb have the same spelling, but different vowel sounds or stresses.
05 April 2010
What's the connection between plain English and foreign language translation? If your source document is as clear as possible, you'll get a better translation --- easy!
22 March 2010
Read the press release at www.plainlanguage.gov.news/index.cfm?topic=ysnAll
16 February 2010
But we're delighted to say that we're nearly there. Watch this space for news of our launch!