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 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.