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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29 July 2010

Carrots and the art of writing clearly

For the first week of this term, my 12-year-old son had to keep a food diary. He recorded everything he ate and his mood at various times during the day. A food diary is an intriguing tool that makes you think carefully about what you eat. For a week, gone were chippies and biscuits and illicit sweets on the way home from school. In were nutritious snacks, healthy lunches, and lots of vegetables for dinner — which he even insisted on cooking one night! (To be fair, my boy does enjoy his vegetables, with or without the influence of a food diary!) We noticed a big increase in the number of carrots we consumed that week.

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

On a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate the generosity of this letter?

I used to get lots of personal letters — and I used to write lots as well. Sadly, because of email entering our world, it’s pretty rare now that a real letter drops through my box.

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.

14 July 2010

Demand to understand - the baffling banker

Here's the first of three video clips from the US Plain Campaign: the Baffling Banker. I'll post the other two over the next few days. (BTW, the headline to this post should be read with a US accent.)

12 July 2010

Check out our new website

Do check out our new website. It's still a work in progress (as websites should be), but we're cautiously pleased with it.

01 July 2010

The chemist who wrote

Hands up, who has a scientific brain? Do you think this means you’re not a writer? Do you think words are better left to the artists amongst us?

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.