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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20 December 2011

Giving readers the information they want

One of the key writing principles we teach is to think of the reader. We give readers the information we think they want to know. But how do we know we’re right? We recommend document user-testing.

The Office for Financial Literacy and Retirement Income recently wrote a booklet for residents of the earthquake-affected Red Zone in Christchurch. Find the booklet at — it presents the financial, legal, and insurance information residents need to make decisions about their houses.

Before the Commission published the booklet, they went to Christchurch. They showed the booklet to a group of Red Zone residents and asked them if it was easy to read, and if the information was useful. Changes were made to the content and layout of the booklet.

As a result, Christchurch Red Zone residents have information and a process that takes some of the stress out of a difficult time in their lives.

Write is encouraging its clients to think about running their own user-testing projects. We have conducted two lunchtime seminars on document user-testing. Fifty people came to each session, so we can see that our clients are concerned about their readers. Find out more about user-testing at
  • Document user-testing tells you what your readers understand.
  • Identify and address surprises.
  • Validate your educated guesses.
  • Try out variations before committing a document to print.
  • Understand reader reaction.
  • Reduce the need for customer support.
Manufacturers have been testing their products for years. Testing our documents makes good business sense — to make sure we give readers what they want.

09 December 2011

05 December 2011

Even the professionals get confused - supporting the case for plain English

Even the financially literate folk at the Commission for Financial Literacy and Retirement Income can get confused by financial information, according to a recent report about KiwiSaver calculations. It just goes to show that everyone benefits from clear, concise communication. And when we're reading about complex topics like retirement savings, clarity is critical. The main message to fund managers? 'Keep KiwiSaver clear.'

The magic of keyboard shortcuts

Hunting on a web page for a piece of text? Did you know that Ctrl-F can take you straight there?

Or that there are a whole bunch of keyboard shortcuts that turn lengthy tasks into the work of an instant? Around 90% of web users don’t. Read this piece from the Sydney Morning Herald (via Stuff). Scroll down for a list of really useful shortcuts.

Keyboard shortcuts you should know

25 November 2011

How long does it take to learn a new word?

When a new ‘must-have’ device is launched, the early adopters go shopping. They know its language already. They’ve been reading the magazines.

The rest of us have to do our homework and learn new words before we buy a tablet or a smartphone. To help with your shopping, try the jargon-busting

But a definition is not enough to understand cloud, slider, flash storage, Android, Bluetooth, dual-core, and apps. We need to hear a word, see it in different contexts, read the advertisements, and try the products to understand how a slider or Android can change our lives. Like a child learning a new word, we test our understanding of the word with questions and use in it conversations.

I rely on the writing skill of technical writers to help me understand new words. They must write clearly and never assume that I already know their language. Here’s a great link for technical writers—are specs and techy words the best way to review gadgets?

And the answer to the how-long-does-it-take question—we need to use a word maybe 18-20 times to know it well.

For fun, expand your store of great words on this site from the New York Times

27 October 2011

Beating dyslexia — one character at a time

Dutch researcher Christian Boer has designed a new font, 'Dyslexie', to make it easier for people with dyslexia to read.

The font uses several features that make it less likely that characters will appear jumbled or reversed.

Read more about it in this Scientific American article:
Bold Stroke: New Font Helps Dyslexics Read — you can even read the article itself in the new font!

18 October 2011

Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance

I love this piece by American author Daniel Handler, written under his pen-name Lemony Snicket.
My personal favourite:
3. Money is like a child — rarely unaccompanied. When it disappears, look to those who were supposed to be keeping an eye on it while you were at the grocery store. You might also look for someone who has a lot of extra children sitting around, with long, suspicious explanations for how they got there.

14 October 2011

Health literacy - new definition, new skills

October is Health Literacy Month.

So what is health literacy? The ground is already shifting in this relatively new discipline.

About 5 years ago the American Medical Association Foundation defined health literacy as:

‘the ability to read, understand and act on medical information’. The focus was on the patient and their skills.

A newer definition:

‘health literacy is the communication component of healthcare’.

The focus is shifting to the health provider.

Clinicians need to check consumer and patient understanding. ‘Have I presented the information in a way that’s easy to understand and act on?’

Rosie Knight is a plain English specialist at Write. Health literacy is one of her great interests. She has inspired a new workshop, the Health Information Lab. It offers strategies and techniques for communicating clearly about health, and checking that the consumer really knows what they need to.

Go to our website for links to more blogs about health literacy

Read about our workshop Writing Health Information Clearly

13 October 2011

Save on training, and celebrate

At Write we're making it a little easier to cut the waffle and clarify your communication.

We're offering a special price for our plain English training, just for today.

You can also get two copies of the Write Style Guide for the price of one.

The reason? It's our way of celebrating International Plain Language Day.

Read more about our specials and how to book

05 October 2011

It’s time to celebrate Plain Language Day

Make a diary note to keep things clear on Thursday 13 October — it’s International Plain Language Day.

The day marks the first anniversary of the US Plain Writing Act. It’s being celebrated globally, on the net and on the streets.

At Write Limited’s Wellington office, come and hear about literacy and editing in the future, when the printed page has been left behind by technology.

Judy Knighton, one of Write’s plain English specialists, will deliver the presentation she recently gave to editors in Australia.

What’s the role for editors now that literacy means reading a phone, sending a tweet, and downloading a podcast? Will editors have a place as new technologies multiply?

TCANZ — the Technical Communicators Association of New Zealand — is hosting the event.

Read more about ‘The transliterate scribe’ and how to attend

Read about Judy Knighton

And watch this blog for Write’s special offers to celebrate International Plain Language Day.

03 October 2011

Plain English optimisation for top search rankings

As Google's algorithms become more and more sophisticated, journalist and web editor Robert Niles suggests that it's time to forget about keywords and search engine optimisation.
...and time to focus instead on PEO [Plain English Optimisation].
Too many writers think of SEO as writing for computers, when their real focus should be writing to meet the needs of a human audience. Ask yourself these questions whenever you write:
  • Are you writing about something that people have personal experience with or personal interest in? Can you express that audience "need" in 10 words or less? Have you done that in the story?
  • Does your article do anything to provide a practical take-away that helps readers address this need, whether it be a to-do-list (even a short one) or at least relevant, previously unknown information about the topic? Can you describe that take-away in 10 words or less? Have you done that in the story?
  • Are you writing using the words and phrases that normal readers - people who aren't your sources and co-workers - use when they talk about this topic? Are you using the vocabulary of a 10th grader, or a 10-year professional in the field?
  • Describe your piece in three words. Do those three words appear in the headline, the title tag or at least within the opening paragraph? How long does the reader have to read your piece before he or she will know what you're writing about?
  • Are you drowning your reporting under too many words?

28 September 2011

Enter your winning plain English or 'brainstrain' document today

Friday of this week is the closing date for entries to the Plain English Awards.

It's not too late to enter - there are 15 awards in seven categories. Category 7 is People's Choice, with awards for best plain English document, best plain English website, 'brainstrain' document, and 'brainstrain' website.

Why not enter your favourite document or website - or the document or website that does your head in (or all four)?

Or try your hand at the Best Plain English Sentence Transformation (Category 4), for an amazing prize.

The Awards website has details of how to enter, and of the awards in the other five categories (Plain English Champion, Best Plain English Document, Best Plain English Website,  Best Plain English Technical Communicator, Best Plain English Financial Document).

26 September 2011

Brit Tom Albrighton, on his ABC Copywriting blog,  has kicked off a 'Plain English Patrol' - under which name he promises to find, dissect, and repair badly written signs. He laments:
Bad English is everywhere, just waiting to leap out and chafe your sensibilities. And the heartbreaking thing is that just a little thought and effort would have made the difference between total calamity and total clarity.
In this first Plain English Patrol post, he looks at three signs. Here's an example:
It’s the small print about a competition that’s promoted on the bottle.
Open to those aged 12 and under. Parent/Guardian consent is required for participation…
So let me get this straight. By definition, we’re talking to kids – if the parent or guardian is already reading, there isn’t a problem. And we’re talking to kids as young as five or six. So why, in the name of all that’s holy, are we using words like ‘consent’, ‘required’ and ‘participation’?
The Flesch-Kincaid reading level of this text is 9.0, or US ninth grade – in other words, only likely to be comprehensible to children of at least 14. Clearly, whoever wrote this didn’t spend too long thinking about the nature and concerns of their audience.
It’s puzzling because the understandable version is so obvious:
You must be 12 or younger to enter. Ask your Mum or Dad first.
OK, I’ve lost the ‘guardian’, but I’m sure kids with guardians will get the message. And with a grade level of 1.4 (clear to a six-year-old) I feel the trade-off is totally worth it.

20 September 2011

Kicking language into touch

I’m only a part-time rugby fan, but I’m enjoying the fun that journalists are having with language.

Country names, characteristics, and yes, stereotypes have given readers some great headlines. Last weekend, Rugby Heaven tempted us to read on with ‘Wobbly Wallabies in an Irish Stew’, ‘French a rabble but they can still fry us’, and even ‘French follies could be on the cards’. If you enjoy Hoagy Carmichael’s easy listening style, you’ll appreciate ‘Georgia on Moody’s mind’.

Metaphors abound. I enjoyed the ‘orchestrated performance of sustained passion and pressure from the pack’ in the Ireland v Australia game. Sadly, ‘Australia…never found a rhythm through the first stanza’, and ‘the All Blacks hit a speed bump on the road to playoffs’. Did you see the ‘Welshmen muscle up to the Island challenge in a crunch ‘Pool of Death’ clash’? And even a part-time rugby fan could see that ‘Ireland has laid an explosive charge under the whole tournament.’ Heavy duty language when you really need it.

Headlines can be sound bites as well. Duncan Johnstone had fun with ‘Cooper bites back over “boofhead” backstabbing’ in the Dominion Post on Friday, as Marc Hinton did on Monday with ‘Ka pai Kahui’.

Some reports are close to the bone. All players should be afraid of Sonny Bill Williams, our ‘potent weapon’. The Springboks will be disappointed to be ‘the old and the restless’, but ‘gallant’ is such a great word to describe Wales and Georgia.

We all knew that the game in New Plymouth on Thursday between USA and Russia would be a ‘Cold war clash’ and a ‘Clash of the Titans’—I felt their pain as the Eagles clawed the Bears in the Dominion Post on Friday. ‘Bringing the big guns’ (Radio NZ on Sunday) didn’t save the Russians. I grew up with the real fear of the real cold war, and could not have imagined back in the sixties, that we would one day use these words for sportive fun.

Enjoying language, and understanding how we play with it, is the subject of a New Zealand book just published, called Q & Eh, Questions and answers on language with a kiwi twist. The writers are linguists at Victoria University, Professors Laurie Bauer and Janet Holmes, Associate Professor Paul Warren and Dr Dianne Bardsley. They write a popular language column in the Dominion Post.

'Q & Eh' is a revised version of their Dominion Post columns. I’ve been dipping into it, but you could read it from cover to cover. It has several references to the language of sport—enjoy the two to three page answers to important questions, like ‘Is there always fighting talk in sports reports?’ and ‘Are you stumped when it comes to cricket?’ 'Q & Eh' uses cartoons and photographs to illustrate points, and has a helpful glossary of language terms, and an easy-to-use index. It's arranged by theme and is fun to read.

16 September 2011

A rose by any other name...

Neil James of the Plain English Foundation, in a presentation on the first morning of the IPEd Conference, challenged us to apply a simple test of public recognition. Ask your taxi driver, he said, what profession solves the problem, and what is the name of the professional practitioner.

Illness or injury? Medicine and doctor.

A complex tax return? Accountancy and accountant.

Breach of contract? Law and lawyer.

What about producing a document?

Thanks to historical contexts, the fragmented theoretical base, and rapidly evolving fields, we're unlikely to get the same response (or in some cases any response) from all the people we ask.

Neil suggests that we needed to promote editing and its communications siblings as part of a broader communications discipline, encompassing editing, technical communication, plain language, information design, and usability.

My question to you is what should we call this discipline? Neil suggests 'communicator'. My offering that day was 'scribe' - a word with a venerable tradition. Once, designers used to call themselves commercial artists. Does that make us commercial writers?

Thinking about it further, I'm leaning towards 'writer'. That's what I put on customs documents and tax forms. When people ask: 'What do you do?' I respond: 'I write'. 'What do you write?' With Hamlet, I reply: 'Words. Words. Words.'

Any preferences? Other suggestions?

15 September 2011

Linguistic Darwinism

To me, one of the most fascinating speakers at the IPEd Conference was Kate Burridge. Kate is Professor of Linguistics at Monash University. She gave us a quick history of the English language in several passages - from Old English, Middle English, and Early New English.

The English of 1200 years ago is impossible for an untutored ear to understand. Those who wrote Beowulf down around the turn of the first millenium would have been unable to read Chaucer, just 300 years later. But with the coming of printing, and widespread prose literacy, change slowed. And in the seventeenth century, English solidified.

For 500 years, as Kate put it, the written tail has wagged the spoken dog.

Kate suggests that change is speeding up again, fueled by the number of speakers for whom English is not a mother tongue, and by social media. Once again, people are using language to create community and express identity.

13 September 2011

Ebooks and the future of publishing

Epublishing was a recurring theme at the IPEd conference, with two plenary sessions and a number of workshops.

Many publications departments are integrating ebooks into their editorial or production workflows. Amazon already sells more ebooks than print books (or pbooks, as some call them).

Speakers at the conference argued forcefully for editors to manage the ebook process. Whatever the publication method, the content is still what matters. The purpose of publishing is to convey meaning - to send a message from writers to readers. Whether the document is a prize-winning novel, a mathematics textbook, a corporate annual report, or a government white paper, the publication doesn't exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the message.

The role of an editor is to ensure that the message gets through. In an epublishing future, editors are more important than ever.

12 September 2011

A matter of tone

Plain English isn't just a matter of well-chosen headings, straight-forward words, short active sentences, clear layout, and good structure. Tone matters, too. Tone tells your reader what you think of them. Meredith and I saw a Sydney Buses sign that was a great example of what can happen when you don't get your tone right. It said:

"No smoking. No drinking. No eating. Security cameras are operating on this bus. Plain clothes policemen may be present on the bus."

Then, having made it clear that we weren't welcome, and weren't to be trusted, it went on:

"If you need any further information, please ask for a copy of our 'Welcome Aboard' brochure."

'Further'? 'Welcome Aboard'?  For more about what Sydney Buses thinks about its customers, see here.

09 September 2011

IPEd Conference 2011

Meredith and I are in Sydney at the Conference of the Institute of Professional Editors.

We've lots of ideas to bring back - and will report when we've returned to NZ and caught up on sleep! For now, here's a few quotes:

"Just because anyone can publish doesn't mean that they should."

"Editors are really all about the user experience."

"As technologies change, editorial will be the calm centre of the storm."

08 September 2011

Shall we enhance?

At Write, debates about the accuracy of words are rife, and ‘enhance’ is one of our favourites. We categorise it as vague, euphemistic, and non-specific.

A computer geek who visited us trainer geeks one day barely got out of the office alive. He swanned confidently into our corner and cheerfully informed us that he had come to ‘enhance the functionality of our computers’.

You can’t get away with that sort of linguistic temerity with us. As one, we rose in horrified protest. ‘Functionality’ was bad enough, being a piece of IT- generated jargon, but ‘enhance’? Exactly what did he mean? The computer man became very nervous. He explained, carried out four separate adjustments on our four separate machines, and fled, a broken human being.

So I was ripe for the linguistic challenge put to me by a colleague. She’d discovered there was such a thing as an Eel Enhancement Company —and wondered just what they would do?

I said I’d pick up the phone and ask.

The person I spoke to acknowledged that I had the name right. ‘What do you actually do with the eels?’ I asked.

No response. ‘Do you make them longer?’ I pursued. ‘Or shorter?’ Still no response. ‘Thinner or fatter? Sexier?’ I wanted to know. By this time, my person was beginning to suspect a leg-pull and became reluctant to say anything.

I decided on being adamant in a last-ditch effort to gain clarity.

‘I work for a plain English company,’ I said. ‘We think businesses and organisations should use words accurately and be specific. If someone wanted to know what it is you do to eels, what would you say to them?’

And finally, the beans were spilled.

‘We breed them,’ I was told.

02 September 2011

Don't make bad news worse

Early definitions of 'health literacy' focused on the reader's ability to understand and use health information - as we discussed back in June. Recent work brings the health practitioner who writes or gives the health information into the definition.

Later, I'm going to blog about the financial cost to the country of poor health literacy, but let Elspeth Murray tell you about the human cost of badly-presented health information. As Elspeth's poem 'This is bad enough' reminds us, when you get bad news about your health, you want health information that cares about you. It should be clear, relevant, up to date, and make the reader feel it's written for them.

Go to our website for links to more blogs about health literacy

Read about our workshop Writing Health Information Clearly

29 August 2011

Press for the printable word

Last month posted 13 flash cards of ‘Printable words the New York Times expected you to know on Sunday, July 24th.’

Let’s leave aside the obvious question: You mean there were unprintable words the paper wanted you to know? picked 10 words, including ‘meslimatic’, ‘souse’, and ‘nonpareil’. Yes, it did seem the ‘Gray Lady’ was without equal in asking her readers to have a dictionary nearby as they read. Not to feel ‘schadenfreude’ (another gem on the list) for the New York Times … but I wondered whether other newspapers were in the habit of using such words regularly?

So I did a quick review of the Monday 15 August issue of The New Zealand Herald. And what did I find? An article about a little adidas public relations problem, with embroiled, frontfoot, and alignment. Yes, I know the last two are quite witty. But the opinion pieces had proximate, malaise, vindicating, and coalesced. Maybe a word in the ears of future contributors will meld mind to pen.

And if a writer must use a complex phrase about childcare or economics, why not explain it in context? For ‘wraparound services’ , why not a process to care for youths with complex needs? And isn’t ‘taking a gradualist approach’ merely saying ‘it’s slow going’? Well, articles with this type of phrase certainly are.
And why do we still see ‘in order to’ when ‘to’ will do? It’s not that I am wishing to ‘carp’ or to be ‘sardonic’ (another two from the New York Times), or even be Seussian, but this really will not do.

I know we expect a broadsheet to be wordier than a tabloid, but with less time to get the facts and more sources for news, shouldn’t content be clearer?

17 August 2011

The pen is (still) mightier than the cursor

Enrolment — reassuringly bewildering
I’ve just got the enrolment pack for my son’s primary school.

It’s reassuringly bewildering — does every parent think that?

There is information about things that weren’t a concern when I went there 41 years ago. (Yes, he’s going to my old school.)

There are two computers per class – Macs no less – and a couple of pods of laptops that classes can book for projects. (How many laptops in a pod? I've no idea, but when I find out, I’ll let you know.)

There’s stuff about sunhats in summer and telephone trees in an emergency.

There’s familiar stuff, like the Scholastic Book Club (hey, neat, I remember that!) and order forms for lunches. (Phew, I get a day off lunchbox duty!)

Finally, stuff about what he’ll be learning
On the last two pages, I came to something really, reassuringly familiar — and vitally important: two pages of the alphabet, upper case and lower, with the penstrokes of each large letters carefully numbered to guide the learning child.

With computers on tap, I am relieved that handwriting is still on the curriculum, taking its place alongside lessons in using the internet.

My 11-year-old niece can write a beautiful thank you card. But she says she finds it easier to text or type.

In the event of a catastrophe…
The keyboard, mouse and keypad have taken an inalienable place in our world but the place for handwriting hasn’t gone away. When the network fails or the battery dies, the only tools we have for recording information will still be pen and paper. When milk costs too much to buy, let alone the $800 for an iPad, you’ll still be able to afford a Bic and a Jotta.

Life and death
The importance of clear handwriting as a tool for clear communication cannot be overrated. It’s a matter of life and death – just ask a pharmacist, struggling to make out the 5’s from the 2’s on a scrawled prescription.

There’s something eloquent and obliquely revealing about good handwriting, that you just don’t get from choosing a nice font.

I will study the alphabet in the enrolment book carefully. I look forward to using it to show my son how to bend the unruly pencil to his will.

The pen is no longer mightier than the cursor, but its day will not be over for a long time yet. Maybe never.

15 August 2011

The New Zealand Passport—smart chip; smarter design

They say that no matter where you go in the world you’ll find a New Zealander. And, more likely than not, that New Zealander will be holding a new black biometric passport, with navigation and travel as its core themes.

A quick trip back in time
In the beginning there was the manually read passport. Then came the more reliable machine readable passport, and immigration officials could process arriving and departing passengers more quickly. Today less than 4% of New Zealanders hold non-machine readable passports, and the New Zealand passport has evolved yet again. It morphed into a biometric passport on 2 September 2008.
This latest passport has an embedded electronic chip that holds facial biometric identifiers. You can see the chip in the symbol on the front cover and in the polycarbonate leaf inside the front of the passport (where you’ll find the chip).

An effective and smart design
Yet the new New Zealand regular passport is smart in other ways. It shows how you can increase information on many layers, yet decrease document size; how you can introduce new themes and artwork, yet keep a document consistent and cohesive. Indeed, it is a great example of content and design coming together in a tightly controlled format.

The design is even smarter when you think that you open it without dwelling on the work behind the design—the research, complex file setup, detailed illustrations, and layout work that went into crafting the Clemenger BBDO-designed passport. All you see is the final effective and smart design.
Instead, you get a story (in English and Te Reo Māori) that develops with each turn of the page. It has constant images that form repetitive patterns (ocean, clouds, and the kōwhaiwhai border) showing how New Zealanders found their way to the land and are framed, yet not constrained, by it.

Other elements progress the design. We see the colours change from purple to orange to green to blue, from dawn to twilight. We see aerial views of sea and land and the Southern Cross move across the sky, as we chart navigational techniques. And this process gets repeated as New Zealanders renew their passport every five years.

The New Zealand passport has become a well-made thread that ties New Zealanders to the fabric of home as they fly or sail beyond its shores to other lands. If only all documents could look and travel so well.

If you want to know more about the design elements on each page of the New Zealand passport (and what they represent), visit

If you want to know more about what goes into a passport’s content, visit the International Civil Aviation Organization’s website and view Document 9303. It is available in the six UN official languages at Document 9303 has the current ICAO specifications for travel documents (including machine-readable passports, visas and ID cards) used when crossing borders. But note that not all countries follow the specifications.

02 August 2011

Strung out

Do you know about noun strings? No, I didn’t either, until I joined Write.

Now I have a name for those occasionally bewildering successions of nouns that have me reading and re-reading, puzzling over what they mean.

Here’s a noun string: automatic frequency regulation services. Four nouns in a block. Concise? Or confusing?

Sometimes noun strings absolutely don’t mean what they say. Do ‘community-based family violence service providers’ bash you up if you ask? Of course not. They do important work reducing family violence and supporting its victims. But that’s not how it reads.

More often, noun strings do what they say. Working out what they say is the tricky part.

You can say ‘New Zealand electricity power system benefits’. Or ‘Human Resources Partnership Implementation Committee Partnering Dialogue’.

Or you can untangle the string to make it easier for your reader to string together your meaning. Write a phrase, not a series of nouns.

‘New Zealand electricity power system benefits’ are the benefits of New Zealand’s electric power system.

And then there’s the dialogue of the committee that’s implementing the human resources partnership. I’ll reluctantly pass the three nouns in a row (human resources partnership). But less is better.

When you’re busting noun strings, keep an eye out for nouns that could be verbs. The writer has turned a verb — implement — into a noun — implementation. Look out for ‘-tions’ and ‘-ments’ and turn them back into verbs.

Your sentences may get longer. But this isn’t about word count. It’s about clarity.

22 July 2011

Good information; good health

I met someone this week who wanted to talk to Write about health literacy — see our blog
Reading and writing for health. She works for a District Health Board (DHB) and knows that people with low literacy often have poorer health.

There’s no shortage of information on every health problem. However, actually using it to improve your health and your family’s health is a complex language task. You have to find the right information, read or hear the words, and understand your illness. Then you have to consider your options, decide how to change your life, set goals and achieve them.

My new friend at the DHB wants people in her region to find it easy to get the health information they need. It’s a challenge, because about 45% of New Zealanders have low literacy, and struggle with the information demands of each day. She can’t change the literacy of the community, but she can encourage the people who produce the brochures and forms to write them clearly and simply.

I’ve sent her two links to websites with statistics and research on literacy in NZ. The first link is to the home page of the international Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) survey. NZ was one of 12 countries that conducted the survey in 2006.

Education Counts is the research section of the Ministry of Education. They aim to ‘increase the availability and accessibility of information about education statistics and research in New Zealand’. The website is easy to use, and has a range of articles on aspects of literacy, using the results of the survey.

The second link is to the Ministry of Health’s research into Health Literacy and Māori, using the same survey results.

If you write health information for a DHB, try these tips:
  • write short sentences — generally shorter than 20 words
  • give only three main messages — more information is not always better
  • define medical words the first time you use them or use a plain English alternative for a medical word — download our medical ebook
Go to our website for links to more blogs about health literacy

Read about our workshop Writing Health Information Clearly

21 July 2011

'The clearest book ever'?

I've just finished a great little book by author Wendy Betteridge. Titled 'It's Your Thoughts that Count', it reminds us about the tremendous power of one's thoughts and how they, above all else, shape your life. Scary but true.

However, it wasn't the great title that caught my eye -- it was the challenge to Wendy on the Acknowledgments page that aroused my curiosity. John Ansell, well-known adman (iwi-kiwi) and passionate campaigner for plain English, challenged Wendy to write 'the clearest book ever'.

What a challenge! Wendy rose to it admirably and the result is an easily digestible book full of advice and inspiration to make one's life a clear reflection of our best-self thoughts.

It's Your Thoughts that Count

15 July 2011

Proofreading makes money

This article from BBC News gives some evidence for the return on investment of good document practices -- editing and proofreading.

It's not just documents destined for hard-copy printing that need proofreading. Remember to proofread copy for your website or blog. This often-overlooked part of the publishing process for online documents can have a big impact.

According to Charles Duncombe and the Confederation of British Industry, a single spelling mistake can cut your online sales in half.

07 July 2011

'So you think you can write about my specialist topic?'

Clients often want to know how we can help in the writing process — especially when we’re not subject matter experts.

Not experts in your topic

Subject matter experts are, of course, the ones we rely on to ensure that what we write is accurate. Our expertise lies in:
  • extracting the information – from interviews, background reading, even watching you in action
  • structuring the information
  • writing the information in clear terms so that other people can understand your messages.
One of the key benefits we bring is a fresh eye to the information. We’re not afraid to ask ‘why?’ or even ‘so what?’ and we’ll tell you when something isn’t clear enough. Our aim is to produce the text you would have written if you’d had the time and the plain English skills.

And you might be surprised what we know a bit about. Out writing team has worked with myriad subjects and vastly different clients.

But experts in writing about any topic

We use a clearly defined writing process that includes research and planning, writing and editing, with consultation along the way. We’ll consider the purpose and audience and create an outline of your document. We’ll check the structure with you. Then we’ll provide the content in more detail, usually over several iterations, crafting as we go. The aim is for you to feel confident your material is accurately conveyed and uses your voice and style.

Making sure the document is readable and accessible — and connects with the intended audience — is fundamental. We’ll be the advocate for the reader. It’s often hard for people with a lot of information and expertise at their disposal to get to the real heart of what they need to say. We’ll ask all the questions your reader might ask, so together we can refine the content and tell your story clearly.

And ready to help you any time

Our process is tried and true, and calling on our writing team can be a godsend when deadlines are looming. In the end, the writing still belongs to you — you can decide to accept or reject what we come up with.

We think we can write — but you be the judge.

Find out more by emailing

01 July 2011

The Oxford comma lives!

This from Stuff:
A report that Oxford University had changed its comma rule left some punctuation obsessives  alarmed, annoyed, and distraught. Passions subsided as the university said the news was imprecise, incomplete and misleading.

Catch the difference between the two previous sentences? An "Oxford comma" was used before "and" in the first sentence, but is absent in the second, in accordance with the style used by The Associated Press.

Guides to correct style differ and the issue became heated on Twitter after reports of the Oxford comma's demise. But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives...

[see Stuff for the rest of the article]

17 June 2011

Top 10 misused English words

ListVerse, home to top-10 lists on almost everything, has recently published Andrew Pepper's list of the top ten English words misused by professional writers and speakers.

Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have other candidates?

(Andrew Pepper writes crime fiction set in Victorian Britain, and lectures in English at Queen's University, Belfast.)

02 June 2011

Double the writing — double the cost

A reporter for a regional newspaper contacted me recently to see if I thought State of the Environment reports should be written in plain English. (Of course I do!) She said that some councillors had criticised the council's 165-page report for being too technical. Council staff had responded by saying that the report needed to be technical to meet Ministry for the Environment requirements, but that it planned to produce another version everyone would be able to understand.

What did I think of that? Even a report that has a significant technical requirement can usually be written to satisfy a less-informed audience. Without having seen the report, it seemed to be a waste of time and taxpayer money to rewrite a document that could almost certainly have been written to meet the needs of a wider audience in the first place. Writing twice inevitably means twice the cost.

I quickly checked the Ministry for the Environment website and various State of the Environment reports for clues as to what was expected. I certainly didn’t find any instruction that these reports must be written primarily for a technical audience. But I did find plenty of evidence that these public documents should be accessible to rate payers and any interested members of the public. Interestingly, the Nelson City Council State of the Environment Report 2010 (which has many plain English features) noted that ‘While it is now a requirement to prepare an SOE report, the Act is largely silent on the content and presentation style of that report’.

So it is up to councils to find a writing style that meets the needs of its audience. Since plain English is a style of writing that chooses structure, language and presentation based entirely on the needs of its audience, it is the only style a council should use.

The various reports I looked at from around the country revealed a considerable range of writing styles and approaches. Some authorities had made a clear effort to use language that would be accessible to interested members of the public, while others used highly technical language familiar to environmental experts but few others. Some had clearly made some effort but still included a raft of technical terms that made the report hard going.

Unsurprisingly the reports that were written in plainer language were generally more interesting and more likely to promote participation in environmental issues. A rather important point I think.

26 May 2011

Not only indexes hide at the back of the book

My colleague Meredith recently ran a well-received workshop on indexing. This meant I had the idea of back-of-book indexes and glossaries in mind when I read the new novel Player One by Douglas Coupland.

You wouldn't usually expect a novel to have an index. I have seen the occasional novel (usually something historical or fantastical) with a glossary. A Clockwork Orange would certainly benefit from one, with its inventive and Russian-based nadsat teenage slang.

Player One uses thirty (thirty!) pages to present a 'future legend' -- partly reference material for reading the novel, but mainly a list of interesting ideas connected to the novel. The intention certainly seems to be that the reader works their way serially through this legend when they reach the end of the book

So, an index? no. In the back of the book? yes. Interesting? definitely.

18 May 2011

Information design - starting with raisin biscuits

I still have the first recipe I ever wrote down. It set the course of my career.

It was on the school holiday radio programme when I was nine. I put it in the blank-paged book for collecting recipes that Mum gave me. It’s for raisin biscuits, and I still make it all the time.

I quickly filled that cookbook, starting with the baking section. When that was full, I commandeered the ‘sauces and gravies’ section for more cakes and biscuits.

Realising space was tight, I began to experiment with different ways of laying out the recipes so they took up less room but all the important details were captured.

Now I keep recipes on my laptop, so layout and space are not so important.

But I organise information for a living. Is space a problem? Is all the information there, in the order the reader needs it? Is it easy to follow? Can they find the information they need?

Whether you are making raisin biscuits, reading a webpage, or filling out a form, your basic needs as a reader are the same. Good information design is a must. The proof of the pudding is in the ease of understanding.

15 May 2011

The emperor has no clothes - and he's not a pretty sight!

Swap the management speak for plain English, says the Financial Times in a recent article, which begins:
When the inquest into London’s 7/7 suicide bombings started in October last year, the coroner became increasingly exasperated. On the final day of evidence, she snapped. “All you senior people [of the emergency services] are allowing yourselves to be taken over by management jargon,” Lady Justice Hallett said. “You people at the top need to say, ‘We have to communicate with people in plain English.’”
Writer Simon Caulkin looks at the reasons for convoluted business language, and concludes that it shows a poor customer focus, a lack of understanding, and a desire to confuse.

10 May 2011

US ClearMark Award winners announced

The winners of the US 2011 ClearMark Awards are on the Centre for Plain Language website.

Have a look at the before and after views of the Grand Prize Winner documents, submitted by the US Internal Revenue Service — who said tax was hard?

Lynda was one of the judges for this year’s Awards. She says it was a great opportunity to work with the international plain English community, and also to see how the US federal services are responding to their new Plain English legislation. The ClearMark Awards were inspired by the New Zealand’s WriteMark Awards. We were thrilled to hear that.

06 May 2011

Write's helping to shape winners!

Congratulations to Miles Crawford who won the Plain Language Commission’s recent competition that asked for a rewrite of a piece of gobbledygook.

We are especially proud of Miles as he’d participated in one of our writing workshops just before he submitted his winning entry.

The competition specifically asked readers to spot the error and the structural problem with the following bullet-pointed list.
If you use your account to make payments when you:
  • do not have enough money in your account and have not agreed a planned
    overdraft with us, or
  • the payment takes you over the limit of your planned overdraft;
you may have to pay bank fees as a result.
Our earlier blog ‘Just give it to me in Bullet Points’ may have been a good place for the original writer to start.

More information on Write’s workshops.

29 April 2011

Medicine labels - keeping it clear

In Britain, there's a move to make the labels on medicines easier to read:
The switch to clearer language will help make sure that patients take their medicines as they should. If this does not happen, the drugs are likely to be less effective and may not work at all. Patients also run the risk of getting unpleasant side effects, which in some cases may cause serious harm.
The change has been informed by a research project run by the University of Leeds, who user tested labels before and after plain English changes.

20 April 2011

Reading and writing for health

People looking for health information have to decide where to get their information from. Health information is everywhere—in advertising, magazines, television dramas, in brochures in the GP’s waiting room and fact sheets at the pharmacy, and on the internet. But it’s not all easy to read.

Health literacy – using health information
Using health information requires more than just the ability to read and understand the words. People who study literacy use the term ‘health literacy’ to describe a person’s ability to read, understand, and then use health information. It takes a complex set of skills to use health information to make decisions about your own or your family’s health.

International surveys show that poor health literacy costs us millions of dollars every year.
When people do not understand written information, they cannot use it to manage their health well.

Ask three key questions
Everybody benefits from health information written simply. One of the best tips I’ve seen for writing or giving health information is called ‘Ask Me 3’. These are three questions a patient should ask in every conversation about their health. Health professionals can use them to give health information. The questions are:
  • What is my problem?
  • What do I need to do?
  • Why is it important for me to do this?

Use the right words, simply
Writers can use Ask Me 3 to plan what they write. Here at Write, we’re preparing an ebook of plain English alternatives for medical words. Words like jaundice, nutrients, pneumonia, neonatal, intravenous, postoperative, and angina are used in daily life. However, you can’t assume that your readers understand medical words.

You may want to continue to use a particular medical term. You don’t have to replace a difficult word in order to write simply. Plain English is about writing clearly, so explain the word(s) the first time you use them and use them in short sentences.

Visit the New Zealand health literacy website
Read more about Ask Me 3

14 April 2011

Plain English for complex information

Recently, I have been thinking about how to use plain English for complex information -- the particular challenges, and how to attack them.

I gave a presentation to the Wellington branch of the Technical Communicators Association of New Zealand (TCANZ) on 4 April.

I have made a narrated video (16 minutes, 10MB) of the slides. Let me know what you think.

08 April 2011

Signing the way

If you want to know why it is vital to signpost the text that follows a heading, you need look no further than the simple, yet effective, traffic sign.

In traffic, you may have only a short time to look at a sign, know what it means, what is to follow, and how you need to comply.

Most signs you see on New Zealand roads today use internationally known shapes (such as circles, diamonds, and rectangles) and symbols (such as silhouettes that show pedestrian crossing, road narrows, slippery surface, and roadworks). Having easy-to-follow and easily recognisable signs is important for domestic and international travellers.

New Zealand road signs fall into three broad categories: compulsory, warning, and information. Compulsory signs tell you what you can and cannot do, and usually are in red or blue. Warning signs alert you to a specific hazard ahead, are usually diamond-shaped, and coloured yellow and black (permanent hazard) and orange and black (temporary hazard). Information signs that give you useful facts are rectangular and come in varying colours and sizes.

A blog I read says Transit Lanes ‘are the lanes that have signs up informing you of the correct usage of the lanes that are written so small and with so much information on the sign that you give up reading it after you nearly crash trying’.

I beg to differ. The ‘Transit Lane’ sign is one example of an effective sign.

Without the sign’s visual cues, they might have got a longer sign that read: ‘Transit Lane starts. You must be a passenger vehicle, with two or more people to use this Transit Lane. You can use this lane as a Transit Lane between 6am and 10am from Monday to Friday’.

Then they really would have missed the message as they tootled along. Even if stuck in traffic.

Instead, the sign has a title, the wording ‘T2’, the days and time of day you need to heed the sign, and the graphic of two people in a car.
All this vital information on a sign of restricted size that allows for only minimal text. The colours, silhouette, and sign shape give us instant clues to the rest of the sign’s message and its meaning. They capture our attention quickly and effectively.

The only information not explicit on the sign is the other types of vehicle, such as passenger service vehicle, cycle, and motorcycle, that may also use the Transit Lane.

On the communications highway, we must always be aware of the various ways people absorb vital information, and how much time they have to understand it. Otherwise we just might find ourselves facing a very real and dangerous misunderstanding.

So steer your eyes to the signs section of your Official Road Code and see what you might have missed. The ‘About signs’ section of the New Zealand Road Code is at

04 April 2011

Simplicity makes your message stronger

In October 2008, Apple introduced its next-generation MacBook laptop computer. At the launch, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs invited design guru Jonathan Ive onstage to explain how they made a notebook that was significantly lighter and sturdier. Ive told the audience that Apple’s new design eliminated two-thirds of the computer’s major structural parts. He said reducing the number of parts naturally made the computer thinner; but contrary to what you’d expect, eliminating parts also made it more rigid and robust — the computer was stronger. That’s an analogy for writing. Eliminate unnecessary words, and your message will be stronger. According to Ive, ‘We are absolutely consumed by trying to develop a solution that is very simple, because as physical beings we understand clarity.’ This anecdote is from a webinar by Carmine Gallo, a columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek . She wrote The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs. She says, ‘Your customers demand simplicity, and simplicity requires that you eliminate anything that clutters the user experience — whether in product design, website navigation, marketing and advertising materials, or presentation slides. Say ‘no’ more often than ‘yes.’’ That counts for words, too.

30 March 2011

'Just give it to me in bullet points'

Have you noticed how often this catch cry is sounded? — a catch cry usually by managers and team leaders to hard-pressed writers.

Bullet points may not be the magic bullet

Writers have lots of presentational tools at their disposal. Bullets are only one of them. I’ve grown suspicious of what people who ask for information in bullet points really mean, and whether what they get is what they want. And I’ve also grown suspicious of what writers think is meant by ‘Just give it to me in bullet points’.

Bullet points should form part of the writer’s overall plan

Like other aspects of writing, bullet points need to be planned. Writers should be able to justify using them. And writers need to be able to distinguish whether they are using bullets to:

  • list single word items
  • deconstruct a sentence
  • summarise main messages.

Writers need to consider what information to convey in bullets

Writers may argue that bullets convey information more concisely or more clearly. I would argue that that’s only if the writer has figured out what they’re trying to be concise and clear about. Writers argue that bullets are more effective than paragraphs — I would argue that many bullet points I see are longing to be paragraphs!

Bullet points work as a summary of main messages

When managers say ‘Just give it to me in bullet points’, what they probably mean is ‘Give me a summary.’ Bullets look dynamic and that’s why we use them. But we should be sparing with them. And it would be unfair to reproach bullet points just because managers ask for them.

There was once upon a time life without bullet points

Computers provide a range of possibilities for presenting content that’s easy on the eye and reader friendly. Those of us who remember the typewriter didn’t have bullet points. You had to convey information using the likes of well-constructed sentences and paragraphs.

Is it a coincidence that the rise of bullet points is accompanied by the demise of the ability to string together a correctly constructed sentence or a recognisably coherent paragraph?

We could blame the computer

It’s only since the advent of the computer that we have bullet points to enhance our writing lives. Bullets first appeared, innocently enough perhaps, in PowerPoint presentations. The computer programme offered you a bullet point and you took it. Then it offered you another one. It would be difficult to come across anyone who’s watched a PowerPoint presentation and not been overwhelmed by the number of bullets they’ve been faced with.

Links on bullet points

The M Factor gives instructions on “Good use of bullet points”.

Speaking About Presenting reports on some research that shows slides full of bullet points don’t work.