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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21 December 2012

Of trees and carols and Merry Christmas

Two billion people around the world are celebrating the traditions of Christmas this month. Here at Write this week, we’ve been enjoying talking about the language and traditions of Christmas.

Did you know that the German monk Martin Luther (in the 16th century) may have been the first to bring a Christmas (fir) tree into his house after he was delighted by the sight of stars twinkling through its branches?

And did you know that Christmas carols were originally folk songs? That explains why most carols tell a story — they were the songs of the ordinary folk. People were forbidden from singing them inside church, but could sing them outside. It was Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy 1223 who brought carols into church.

The ‘merry’ in Merry Christmas first appeared in a letter in 1699, and more famously in Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843.

The Oxford English Dictionary has been celebrating the language of Christmas too — take a look

… and Merry Christmas to you from us.

18 December 2012

Convoluted Christmas carols

We’ve found a few Christmas Carols translated into the ‘un-festive jargon of the modern workplace’. In 2009, our Australian friend Neil James took part in a radio station’s challenge to convert carols from ‘classic’ to ‘convoluted’. We thought it sounded like fun, and we’d love to repeat the challenge here in New Zealand. Take a look at the link, and post your own convoluted carols in the comments.

Here’s another example we found – a jargon-filled version of the Night Before Christmas.

If you don’t have time to give us a full carol, why not enter our Christmas competition and rewrite a song title?

You might aso enjoy reading some of the submissions to our 2011 competition, translations of the New Zealand version of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

14 December 2012

The eyes have it...

...your attention, that is.

I read a fascinating article this week, 'How to control an audience with your eyes'.

The article focuses on how a presenter can guide the attention of their audience by looking where they want the audience to look. A useful tactic, but I found the example pictures even more interesting. They show that this effect happens when we look at pictures of people, as well as at people in real life. So if your document has a picture of a person as well as some text, your reader will be influenced by what the person in the picture is looking at. Make sure it's working for you and not against you!

Read the full article at

05 December 2012

Listen to your readers!

I'm having such fun.

I'm doing a series of user tests on an investment statement for a KiwiSaver scheme. I'm using a couple of test methodologies. In the first part of the test, the reader goes through a section of the investment statement and talks about what they're thinking as they read. In the second part, they answer some specific questions about the content so that I can see whether the information was easy to find and understand.

It's fascinating watching different reading strategies at work. Yesterday, I conducted three tests and saw three completely different strategies.

Read everything

Reader one started at the beginning of the Key Information section, and read every line and every word. At each cross reference to more detailed information, she turned to that page and read the detail before going back to continue with the Key Information section..

Read summary in order, and skim the rest

Reader two started at the beginning of the Key Information section and read it through. She skipped a few paragraphs when the headings indicated that the content wouldn't interest her. She then started on the detailed information and skimmed through the headings, stopping to read detailed content that discussed questions she had in her mind from the Key Information section.

Read what looks interesting, and then find a real person to question

Reader three flipped through the document from the back. He then opened the Key Information section, skipped past the first page because he thought from the headings that it would tell him stuff he already knew, read a paragraph or two, skipped some more sections because he decided they didn't apply to him, and finished the Key Information section in record time. He then turned back to read in detail some of the information he skipped, this time turning for more detailed information at the cross references. Deciding that the detailed information was too detailed, he returned to the Key Information section and read most of it, coming up with a short list of questions that he said he'd phone in.

Write for your readers

To me, this demonstrates the power of headings in writing for your readers - and the power of user testing to find out whether you've succeeded.

Our client for this user testing have given us permission to write up the project for publication and presentations, so expect to hear more about what we did, what we discovered, and how we built on our findings to give our clients a better result.

I've got two more tests today and one tomorrow. I love my job!