This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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23 March 2011

Plain English is best for communicating risk, an Australian study finds

Scientists and academics have to be able to communicate clearly about risk — but too often, unclear language gets in the way. A new Australian study has found clear evidence that when students and academics are taught how to write in plain English, their readers notice the benefits. Not only are plain English documents easier to read, the study found, but readers take much less time to read them ... and understand them better too.

The study was carried out by the Australian Centre for Risk Analysis (ACERA) at Melbourne University. ACERA started with the assumption that ‘clear prose can improve science, decision-making and policy by presenting scientific ideas unambiguously, reducing internal review time and stakeholder misinterpretation.’ (We won’t be picky about that overly long sentence — their hearts are in the right place!)

The ACERA study taught workshops for students, academics, and scientists on plain English writing techniques, based on a book by Richard Lanham, Revising Prose (2006). Participants’ writing was scored before and after the workshops. Their reading and logical structure improved an average of 62%, the study found, and ‘lard’ (unnecessary language) reduced by an average of 30%.

At Write, we find that using people’s own writing is the most powerful way for them to learn. The ACERA study used the same method, with participants providing short examples of their writing before the workshops. The following example clearly shows the improvement:

Original: (28 words) Pelicans may also be vulnerable to direct oiling, but the lack of mortality data despite numerous spills in areas frequented by the species suggests that it practices avoidance.

Revision: (10 words) Pelicans seem to survive oil spills by avoiding the oil.

A bouquet to ACERA for adding to the evidence that plain English saves time, boosts communication, and improves decision making.

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