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.

To find out more about Write, go to or join us on Facebook at

26 November 2012

Plain language evangelism – Equipping the disciples

Since Moses smashed the tablets – the stone ones with ten straightforward rules for living – we’ve been working very hard at transforming the simple into the complex, and confusing ourselves in the process. Joe Kimble, a plain language evangelist whose life work has been campaigning for plain legal language, is trying to alleviate the confusion by keeping things simple in his book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please.

This book is about a cause, but with a personal touch. For me, the personal touch adds interest and underpins the integrity of Joe Kimble’s work in an area that many would struggle to get excited about. You get a sense of mission from the personal story in Part 1.

While at law school, Joe never questioned legal style, despite having studied English at Amherst College and graduated with honours. It never occurred to him that anything was wrong. The awakening (Joe’s word) came while working for the Michigan Supreme Court when he stumbled across two texts – on legal drafting and on English usage – both of which promoted simplicity and clarity. Over the last 30 years Joe has taught legal writing at Thomas Cooley Law School, acted as a legal drafting consultant, and written and spoken widely about plain language and its benefits.

Early on, you find out what this book is not about. It’s not a manual focusing on the nuts and bolts of clear writing. But in Part 2 Joe adapts guidelines he has produced for printed legal documents to helpfully explain the elements of plain language. For more detailed practical advice, he invites his reader to consult the plain language literature.

As its subtitle states, this book presents the case for plain language in business, government and law. In making the case, Joe’s “good news” message for businesses and government agencies is simple – using plain language is a money-saver. Why? Because plain language promotes clear understanding, and clear understanding reduces transaction costs. Those who need to act on information can do so only to the extent they understand what is required. Misunderstanding generally means more time and expense.

The case is made in Parts 3, 4 and 5. Part 3 debunks 10 of the most common myths, which attack the utility and effectiveness of plain language. Part 4 highlights the concrete results of promoting plain language worldwide over the last 50 years via publications, laws, projects, events, organisations and consultancies. Finally, Part 5 provides summaries of 50 plain language initiatives that demonstrate savings in time and money for government and business, and a better experience for consumers.

The case, as presented, is compelling. But is that enough to change hearts and minds? I have my doubts, and I suspect Joe might agree with me. In his personal story he says this book reflects all his efforts over 35 years in sharing the techniques, debunking the myths, and promoting the benefits of plain language. Three times in one paragraph he says, “I’ve tried…” revealing a hint of disappointment, and confirming the truth of the adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. You can also sense the frustration when at page 43, after asking isn’t 50 years of myth-busting enough, the author says:
In the end, you have to wonder just what it is that traditionalists are defending about traditional style. And you have to wonder whether they have had the slightest experience with plain language or given a moment’s thought to what it can accomplish.
Joe refers to his work as a journey. I like that metaphor. A journey’s progress depends on the conditions faced along the way. Occasionally it will be “plain” sailing with excellent progress, but more often than not the road will be rocky and progress will be slower, but progress nonetheless. In many cases complacency, rather than overt opposition, may be to blame for the perceived slow adoption of plain language in business and public communication.

So who will read this book? I think it will appeal mainly to those who are already convinced of the worth of plain language, or at least are favourably disposed towards it. They will be encouraged by the well constructed retrospective showing the gains that have been made, and hopefully will be inspired to build on the solid foundation of those gains.

Joe Kimble has demonstrated that he is not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. The seeds of plain language have been well and truly planted. Benefits are being reaped, but a rich harvest remains out there. Those who already acknowledge the value of plain language and want to promote it in their organisations will find this book a valuable resource. They will be able to confidently follow the author’s rallying call that ends this book: “Go forth and spread the word.” Hearts, as well as minds, need to be changed, and that’s a job for well-equipped disciples.

By Steve O’Hagan

Steve is an enrolled barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand and a plain language advocate. He has worked in the legal services industry in both the private and public sector for 22 years, specialising in knowledge and information management, and honing his writing skills.

No comments:

Post a Comment