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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28 May 2012

Time for the ClearMark Awards

Last week Washington DC saw a feast of plain language activity. As well as the Clarity conference, it was time for the ClearMark Awards, the United States plain language awards that are modelled on New Zealand's WriteMark Plain English Awards. The US-New Zealand links don't end there. This year three of the judges were from New Zealand -- Lynda Harris, Richard Bland, and Melua Watson all provided expertise on the international judging panels.

This year's Grand Prize Winner was a brochure about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) -- the largest nationally representative assessment of what students in the United States know and can do.

So as you think about your entry for this year's WriteMark Awards, take a look at what's happening overseas.

Find out more about the Award winners

Read about the ClearMark judges here

18 May 2012

Interrobangs and crash blossoms

At an office meeting today, the conversation turned to crash blossoms. We've discussed these odd beasts before in our blog. (A crash blossom is an ambiguous headline that can have more than one meaning.) A recent favourite from the Calgary Herald reads 'Police looking into death by Balzac' (21 March 2012).

Later today, I read David Crystal's blog about interrobangs, which made me think that the crash blossom and the interrobang are made for each other. Police looking into death by Balzac?!

Read David Crystal's blog

Have a chuckle over some crash blossoms

14 May 2012

Don't be passive-aggressive

This opinion piece (by Constance Hale for the New York Times) has been doing the rounds.

Constance explains the passive voice clearly. She gives some examples of its abuse, such as this politicians' favourite — cleverly labelled the 'past exonerative'.
But Constance doesn't jump on the everything-active bandwagon. Sometimes sentences are passive for a reason. Maybe the 'agent' in the sentence isn't as important as the subject, or isn't known. If your car has been stolen, you may never find a specific person to be angry at.

So don’t overuse the passive voice, but don’t fear it. After all, it might be just what was ordered by the doctor.

09 May 2012

So what is professional writing?

'Professional’ is a word people bandy about — probably because it sounds impressive. Yes, but what does it mean?

Where writing is concerned, we at Write hear ‘professional’ used often by writers trying to describe how they want their writing to come across. ‘Professional’ has become a catchall term for everything about a piece of writing ranging from vocabulary to tone to layout.

For our two cents’ worth, professionalism implies correctness — specifically, correctness of expression. And let’s throw in consistency as well, while we’re on the job.

Professionalism means correctness of expression

Sorry, but correctness of expression involves all those school days do’s and don’ts. Wrong spelling, misused or missed out punctuation, sentences that are badly constructed — these create a bad impression on the reader. They suggest lack of professionalism because they imply laziness and lack of attention to detail. Which in turn reflect on an organisation as a whole.

If you are a lazy or careless writer, have the grace to disguise that fact by giving your writing to someone who is painstaking and takes pride in getting things correct.

Professionalism means consistency of expression

Consistency means using the same element of language or punctuation in a similar manner throughout a document. Here are three examples.

  • If you use the word ‘report’ to refer to something, continue to use that same term (oops! I mean word) throughout.
  • Be consistent with the way you punctuate bullet-pointed lists (you may have a style guide that provides a standard).
  • If you use a capital letter for a word, for example Ministry, make sure you use the capital consistently.

We can’t all be experts

You may know you’re not blessed with the eye for detail that professionalism requires. So shoulder- tap someone in your organisation who is.

Hidden away in every organisation are members of a fast-dying race — proofreaders — to whom I will dedicate a future blog. Ask one of these rare beings to check your writing for correctness and consistency.

All the thanks they’ll want is the opportunity to explain to you why they’ve made changes — and you never know, you might learn something!

01 May 2012

'Tis a gift to be simple

With the fallout from financial organisation failures still very much in the news, we've been pleased to see the Financial Markets Authority (FMA) speaking out about plain language.

We were among 62 individual and corporate submitters on the FMA's draft guidelines for disclosure documents, which proposed plain language as a way of ensuring that investment statements meet the needs of investors.We agree. Plain language helps readers:
  • find what they need
  • understand what they find
  • use what they find to meet their needs.

Most submitters agree with plain language

The submissions on the FMA website mostly support plain language, but we did find a couple arguing that plain language would make a document less clear. One submitter raised the strange objection that legal language is more precise, and less likely to be misinterpreted, than plain language writing.

Plain language has no case law because there have been no cases

It is true that a lot of case law has gathered around the interpretation of particular terms. This just shows how ambiguous the original writing was. The goal of plain language is to ensure that documents are certain in meaning and can be easily understood. To our knowledge, there has never been a court case hinging on the interpretation of a term in a plain language document.
“None of these [interpretation] rules says ‘words will be construed according to what they meant the last time they were used’ or ‘traditional and technical words are to be preferred over new or simple words’. On the contrary, all the rules are designed to operate only if what the parties have written is confused, contradictory, unclear, or does not reflect what they must have intended to write. If what is written is clear, the rules and maxims of interpretation simply do not apply.” [Asprey, M. Plain Language for Lawyers 2nd ed. (1996) The Federation Press Pty Ltd, Sydney.]

Complex ideas and concepts can be explained in plain language

The other objection was that plain language couldn't deal with complexity. It is an odd but persistent rumour that language that is easy to read can't deal with complex ideas. The submitter who raised this objection went on to propose that financial advisers should explain the concepts (presumably in plain language, or what would be the point). So clearly they do think plain language works.

Is 'simple' the opposite of 'complex'? Some plain language advocates shy away from the term 'simple'. Not me. I embrace the concept of a document that is simple to read. The ideas and concepts may be complex. The document itself will probably be very sophisticated. But all of that sits on the writing and production side of the communication. To the reader, the document is simple. It takes cleverness to be simple.  

Plain language is in the best commercial interests of the organisation

I'm not surprised so many organisations supported plain language. It's in their best interests. Plain language isn't just about making the structure, language, layout, and content of the document work together to ensure the reader gets the information they need. It's not just about saving money in document drafting, question answering, and error fixing. It is, of course, about all of that. But it's also about making friends for the organisation (or at least about not making enemies).

Christopher Balmford has this to say about how written documents affect the relationship between an organisation and its customers.
“each time someone reads an organization's document they connect with the organization's brand. Too often, that moment of truth is sour: the document is formal, impersonal, and awkward. It fails to live up to the values that are the foundation of the organization's brand.

Organizations spend fortunes on logos, visual identities, and advertising. They do so with the aim of creating or refining their brand in an attempt to woo and retain customers. Yet the very same organizations pay little attention to the voice of the brand. Even though it is the voice of the brand that the audience has to deal with—often when the audience is busy at work, or weary at the end of the day, and would rather be doing something else.” [Balmford, C. Repositioning clear communication in the minds of decision-makers.]