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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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.

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.

06 March 2011

How to write with purpose

In last month's survey, we asked you to name the the problem you find most often in the documents produced by your organisation. Overwhelmingly, you told us the most common problem was lack of clear purpose.

Why is the purpose of the document so important? Why do you need to make sure the purpose is clear at the beginning of the document? Your reader could just as well ask, 'why should I read this document?' or 'what's in it for me?'

Stating the purpose clearly at the beginning of the document lets your reader know why they should take the time to read further. Without a purpose statement, you run the risk of losing your reader's attention and of not getting the result you're looking for.

Don't be shy. If your title or headline doesn't completely capture your purpose, blatantly include a section called 'Purpose of this document'. It feels a little odd at first, but it helps to clarify your thinking and to structure your writing. You don't always have to head up the purpose section in this way. Later you'll branch out and think of many more engaging headings. Just make sure you keep your reader in mind and keep the purpose upfront. This way you'll have happier readers and be more likely to get results from your writing -- and maybe compliments too!

See the results from February's survey here.

Have your say in this month's survey.