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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09 December 2013

Starting afresh as an antidote to complexity

Here's an extract from Lynda's speech at  the Plain English Awards ceremony on 3 December. Many of you wanted the details of the book she referred to in her speech, so we've included them at the bottom of this post.

"We’ve being reading a brilliant book lately called Simple Conquering the crisis of complexity, by ‘simplicity warriors’ Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.

Simple addresses the question of why we tolerate complexity in our lives and offers the concept of ‘breakthrough simplicity’ (starting afresh) as the antidote. The book is about:
  • how complexity is costing us money, undermining government and business, and putting our health and even our lives at risk.  (The book is full of stories and facts and figures.)
  • how people are overwhelmed by quantity and complexity and are looking for a ‘back to basics’ approach as a way to simplify their own lives
  • how organisations can use the concept of simplicity (especially in documents) to revolutionise the way they operate and achieve their purpose.  
Simple is also about focusing on simplicity as a bottom-line business issue. It’s about simplifying products, services, and communications to improve relationship with customers and stakeholders, and about being more productive and saving time and money.

Much as I loved Simple, it told me (in very inspiring ways) what I already knew from our work over 23 years, and by the stories we know from the organisations we work with.

We’re also writing a book (called Rewrite) that captures the stories of mostly New Zealand organisations that are fighting the complexity battle. For one section of the book, we asked organisations we have worked with what their motive was for starting afresh (to find breakthrough simplicity) and investing heavily in plain language. You’ll find their stories inspiring too."

Read more about Rewrite and pre-order a copy

Buy Simple here

04 December 2013

Clear disclosure will win customer loyalty and improve compliance all round

The debate continues: how much should banks tell customers about their loan arrangements? And how best to do it clearly? Stuff today discusses the idea of a standardised document across all financial institutions to allow customers to shop around and easily compare terms and conditions.

Our financial decisions and experiences have a lot in common with our health decisions and experiences. In both areas, we have to take in a lot of information, understand it and use it to make a decision we may have to live with for many years.

In New Zealand, the Code of Health and Disability Consumers' Rights (1996) protects consumers in their health decisions and experiences with health providers.

Right 6 (1) says 'You have the right to all the information you need to make an informed choice or give your informed consent'.

So banks could learn from the health and disability sector and give people all the information they need to make an informed choice. Information written in plain language in a well-designed document will encourage customer loyalty, and make it easier for customers to understand their financial obligations.

13 November 2013

Setting trends; setting type

Remember when the word ‘trendy’ was, well, trendy? Yet now it is the kiss of death for anything purporting to be modern, innovative, or contemporary — used by people trying desperately to sound ‘cutting edge’ (is this the replacement for ‘trendy’?).

We are all constantly bombarded with change, software updates, new ‘rules’, and fashionable terms. We are urged to keep moving with the times, or risk the infamy caused by using an outdated word to mean ‘up to date’.

This brings me, rather circuitously, to the knotty issue of the number of spaces that should be used after a full stop in normal text. When editors receive a document with double spaces after full stops (or worse!), we tend to sigh and resignedly bring up the Search and Replace function. (But we never use the Search and Replace All option: we’ve all clicked this once in a burst of optimism, with disastrous results.)

The Heraclitean River blog addresses this question comprehensively in its essay here — but leaves editors mumbling into their (metaphorical) beards. In changing times we all tend to accept reasoning when it is backed up by enough people who agree with us. We’re not joining the Flat Earth Society, but it may be time for us to be a little more flexible about the thorny spacing issue.

By Corinna Lines

12 November 2013

From our bookshelf: FISH! Tales

At every staff meeting the chair reviews a book from our bookshelf, to remind us of the wealth of knowledge we have at our fingertips.

Jack Ponting, our client services co-ordinator, picked FISH! Tales. Here's what he said:

'The series of FISH! books are based around a special fish market in Seattle. They contain real-life stories to help you transform your workplace and your life.

'They promote four principles for engaging:
  • play
  • make their day
  • be there
  • choose your attitude

'Living this philosophy results in a workplace where the quality of life is satisfying and meaningful, and the experience for customers, internal and external, is compelling.

'PLAY — Work made fun gets done, especially when we choose to do serious tasks in a light-hearted, spontaneous way. Play is not just an activity; it’s a state of mind that brings new energy to the tasks at hand and sparks creative solutions.

'MAKE THEIR DAY — When you ‘make someone’s day’ (or moment) through a small kindness or unforgettable engagement, you can turn even routine encounters into special memories.

'BE THERE — The glue in our humanity is in being fully present for one another. Being there is also a great way to practise wholeheartedness and fight burnout, for it is those half-hearted tasks you perform while juggling other things that wear you out.

'CHOOSE YOUR ATTITUDE — When you look for the worst, you will find it everywhere. When you learn you have the power to choose your response to what life brings, you can look for the best and find opportunities you never imagined possible. If you find yourself with an attitude that is not what you want it to be, you can choose a new one.

'Applied Principles touched many who applied them in their workplaces. This book is a collection of some of these stories and experiences.

'On page 137 the challenge is offered to ‘Let’s go fishing!’ This offers 12 weeks of discovering the richer and more rewarding life that is just a few choices away.

'William Hope, from Arrow Electronics UK Limited said, ‘The FISH! Philosophy has spread across our organisation like an electric shock, leaving people tingling with the energy it leaves behind.’

Thanks, Jack, for advice that enhances happiness at work, and outside it.

FISH! Tales is by Stephen C Lundin, John Christensen, and Harry Paul.

Take a look on Amazon

17 October 2013

I hope I've done the right thing

We attach the word ‘literacy’ to many areas of information in the new century—food, media, computers, health. ‘Financial literacy’ is an important term to know and important skill to have for people like me approaching retirement.

Today I phoned a financial organisation to take out my small investment. My adviser had told me to use the word ‘repurchase’, so that I got the money by cheque. When I phoned the organisation, the person who answered the phone refused to use the word ‘repurchase’, and said I must want to ‘redeem’ or ‘withdraw’ the money. He’s sending a form. I hope I’ve done the right thing.

Post written by Rosie Knight

12 October 2013

PLAIN 2013 Conference enlightens and inspires

What a privilege to be in Vancouver for the PLAIN 2013 Conference as hundreds of plain language practitioners and supporters from 19 countries commune. Or if the predictions of Neil James in this morning's plenary come true, we'll be plain language practitioners no more. We'll redefine our somewhat fragmented, multi-disciplinary profession as 'clear communication'. Our various disciplines from writer or editor to information designer, technical writer, or usability consultant (did I forget any?) will converge. No more problems describing your profession at those pesky school reunions.

In the second plenary, we heard the latest news about IC Clear from Karine Nicolay. Soon you'll be able to enrol in an international post-graduate course in clear communication.
Read about IC Clear

World Cafe followed, with 20 topics to choose from for a series of interactive roundtable discussions. We conversed through three topics for 20 minutes each. The themes of the ones I chose were: achieving long-term change, embedding clear language principles and practice within an organisation, and selling the need for plain language to management.

Legal language in legal aid and pro bono projects was the topic for after lunch. The country is different (the Canadian experience), but the problems are the same. Then an entertaining session of time-saving tips with Marcia Riley of Write Like a Pro fame before Josiah Fisk (More Carrot) delighted us with his maxims for messages and meta-messages, presented in his wonderfully visual way and timed to a tee.

The keen ones (most of them, I think) stayed on for the late shift when Sarah Stacy-Baynes and I presented together on the Cancer Society's project to rewrite their information booklet on lung cancer.

Looking forward to more inspirational stuff tomorrow.
Read more about PLAIN2013

10 October 2013

Our book about transformation: 'Rewrite — How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit'

Image of the cover of 'Rewrite - How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit'
Rewrite — How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit highlights the tremendous cost of bad writing in business and government, and offers a practical solution.

Words have a price. Transforming the way your organisation writes can transform the way it performs. Aligning your voice with your brand has the power to enhance your bottom line, whether that’s social good or profit.

Lynda Harris, Write’s chief executive, has written the book about many of the organisations she has seen transform their writing culture.

Rewrite is a practical handbook for anyone who understands the price of words — CEO’s, board members, communications managers, and plain language practitioners. Adapt the Rewrite for Change™ model, follow steps on the plain English pathway, and use tips for success to transform the voice of your own organisation.

Preview and pre-order

Rewrite — How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit goes on sale early in 2014. Meanwhile you can read a sample chapter and pre-order a copy.

Pre-order a copy of Rewrite — How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit

Download a sample chapter — How Statistics New Zealand gave its numbers a voice

Visit the Rewrite website

Read stories from people at the plain English coalface

The book describes how organisations in the commercial, professional, not-for-profit, and public sector changed their voice.

Senior managers from each organisation describe their motivation for change. They explain how they got buy-in, laid the foundations, overcame obstacles, and kept momentum going. Each talks about their own approach for turning around the skills and attitude of its writers. And they tell how they’ve reaped the benefits of a plain English culture.

03 October 2013

02 October 2013

A happy story about accessible banking

A while ago, my banking website told me that it was getting a makeover. The big day arrived and… oh dear.

It looked horrible — depressing grey text, tiny and narrow, on a pale grey background. My eyes strained to read it. I asked around the office and everyone agreed that at its default setting (the size of the text when you first open the website), it was difficult to read.  That’s an accessibility problem… and my only disability is ‘middle-aged eyes’.

I complained, and it worked!
So I got on my high horse and complained about the accessibility problems. People with poor vision struggle to read when there’s little contrast between the text and the background. And a narrow typeface is usually harder to read than a wider one, for all readers. The individual letters are more indistinct.

And the good news? I wasn’t the only one to give feedback. This message now appears on the bank's login page:

'We have made some improvements to our internet banking. These improvements will make internet banking easier to use as we feature better colour contrast and text that is easier to read.

‘Thank you to everyone who sent us suggestions to improve our internet banking. We’ve taken this feedback on board and will continue to make improvements.’

Is ‘cool’ overcoming ‘clear’?
The trend for ‘cool’ grey-on-grey is spreading. Look at the new iOS7 operating system for the iPhone. Here's a screenshot of the timer. It looks fantastic, but it has me squinting through my specs. Thank you, Co-operative Bank, for putting readability ahead of design. Now would everyone else please follow their lead?

27 August 2013

From our bookshelf: a printer’s ‘Bible’

Jack Ponting, Write’s client services co-ordinator, has loaned me a wonderful book on printing. You may remember he wrote a terrific blog recently about his days as a typesetter.

Read Jack’s blog

‘ Wonderful’ and ‘printing’ may seem an odd pairing to you. But I love typefaces and the art of picking the right one for the right use — strictly from an amateur’s perspective.

When he won the title of top linotype apprentice in 1973, Jack was given a reference book from the 1920s. He brought it in for us to look at. It has the snappy title The Composing Room. Book & Jobbing Composition. Machine Composition by John Southward. (Publisher and publishing date not known.)

If you love fonts and printing, you’ll glory in this book. Everything’s covered, from The Structural Requirements of the Printing Office (‘…Work of good quality is required to be produced with great expedition and at a low cost.’), to beautiful posters and business cards. With fonts in Hebrew, Greek, and for printing sheet music, to boot.

You won’t find this book in any modern library, though it’s probably sitting in a stackroom somewhere. But a good substitute may be Just My Type: a book about Fonts by Simon Garfield (New York: Gotham Books, 2011). Find out about the shocking life of Eric Gill (creator of Gill Sans, Write’s house font), and the role of a font in a presidential campaign. That book’s on our bookshelf as well.

Take a look at Just My Type on Amazon

15 August 2013

Taking issue with issues (and other such euphemisms)

Joe Bennett's opinion columns, syndicated in several New Zealand newspapers, are usually well worth reading. He can be a grumpy curmudgeon, but he's also witty, and unafraid of offending. That courage means that he writes with honesty and a refreshing ability to cut through stodge.

His latest column, in the DominionPost of 14 August, is a beauty. Of course, I would think that, because Bennett takes aim and blasts away at the ghastly euphemisms that we all come across every day...and that I too often find ridiculous.

The word 'provider', when attached to words like school or internet service, becomes nonsensical, Bennett argues. And I love his attack on a phrase he recently heard in an online message from his (hrmmph) internet provider: 'our server is currently experiencing issues.'
As he points out, a server is in an inanimate object incapable of experiencing anything. And issues are usually the word for something bad that the  writer is too scared to name or accept responsibility for.

At Write, we often do an exercise with participants on our business writing workshops, where we give them four columns, each containing a list of nouns from the current business jargon. You know the kind of words I mean. Database, facilitation, partnership, initiative...and so on.

We ask people to choose any random noun from each of the columns to make a wordy, jargon-laden job title or activity. A noun string, in other words. So using the words I just chose, we'd have a database facilitation partnership initiative.

The scary thing is, people tend to find that the noun strings they create sound disturbingly realistic and possible. That's because jargon and euphemisms are everywhere, and we all read them every day. They can start to sound almost normal, and that's a terrible thing.

So good on you, Joe Bennett, for ridiculing vague language and euphemisms. I'm with you.

14 August 2013

A timely reminder

Last night my teenage daughter posted a poem on Instagram: i carry your heart with me(i carry it in, by e. e. cummings. It took me back 35 years to high-school English. The BookPeople Blog describes Cummings as a “master manipulator of language… [who] cultivated a distinct style that reimagined the rules of grammar.”

All these years later, and an editor for almost as many years, I instantly registered irritation at the absence of capitalisation, the unspaced brackets and punctuation… then I came to:

“(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)”

— and the irritation melted away. Those three lines captivated me and in that moment the rules ceased to matter. The rhythm and the beauty moved me, and this is what a poem should do.

Sometimes editing can feel like a life of pedantry and nitpicking. We justify rules, and promote plain language. And of course there is a vast place for plain language in communicating to the citizens of the world in words they understand.

But poetry is where we can be humbled and reminded of the ways words can also minister to our souls. May I never forget that!

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

~e. e. cummings

Posted on behalf of Corinna Lines

08 August 2013

Emails and letters are your 'front desk'

Our clients have recently been asking for guidelines and workshops on email and letter-writing. They recognise that emails and letters are the ‘front desk’ of their business — where readers get their first or lasting impression.

A recent article in the New York Times points out the risk of underestimating the power of emails and letters to make that impression a good one.

Think of your reader before you ‘send’ or post your message. Is the subject line helpful? (Letters need one too.) Is the action up front and clear? Most of all, consider the tone of your message. Tone is the sum of all parts of an email or letter — the way it looks and the way the reader feels; the order of information in your message, and the words you choose to say it.

Have a look at ‘How misinterpreted are your emails?’ on The Workforce Watercooler website

05 August 2013

For your health's sake, double-check the instructions

On Stuff today, Medical School researcher, Sonya Morgan, says that GPs need strategies to minimise the risk of communication problems. Some of our writing strategies work well for verbal consultations too. Such as thinking of the reader/listener by choosing words they'll be familiar with. 'Chunk and check' is a useful strategy in writing and speaking - giving information in small chunks, and giving the reader/listener time to take it in before giving new information.

The doctor-patient relationship is a shared responsibility. Patients need strategies to keep themselves safe too. Health providers are always busy, and waiting rooms can be intimidating, busy places.

Patients can double-check the instructions by using their own words to tell the doctor what they're going to do. And asking questions and writing down what they need to do will decrease everybody's risk.

02 August 2013

From our bookshelf: Blah Blah Blah

Today's book is Blah Blah Blah: What to do when words don’t work by Dan Roam

This book, by the author of The Back of the Napkin, describes how to combine the visual and verbal sides of your mind to think and communicate more clearly. Roam says that half of what we believe about thinking is wrong. Complexity, he says, kills our ability to think. Misunderstanding kills our ability to lead. Boredom kills our ability to care.

Laid out in three parts, the book describes the blah-blah-blah problem, introduces a solution (vivid thinking), and presents a map to get from where we are to where we need to be.

01 August 2013

The only guide to speech writing you'll ever need

This week, two family members have had to write speeches; one was a school assignment, and the other a funeral eulogy. Too late, I remembered an excellent guide to writing a speech by former Write trainer Margaret Austin. This article covers everything you need to know about planning, writing, and delivering your speech.

Read A Beginner's Guide to Making a Speech

(In case you're interested, the eulogy went off without a hitch, but the school speech is yet to be delivered.)

Need more help with presentations?

It's a verb, Jim, but not as we know it

Our client asked: "Is actioned a word … a debate is raging here."

Our answer:
'Actioned' has made it into the Oxford Dictionary ( - see ‘verb’ near the bottom of the entry), so in that sense it is an accepted English word. But then so have nearly 200,000 other words. Oxford just records what words have wide circulation, not whether they should. The word ‘action’ is used as a verb in management speak but not in common English. As another commentator has said, ‘it’s awkward, jarring, and just plain ugly’. In most circumstances, we could replace ‘actioned’ with a better, more descriptive, and more pleasant-sounding word.

18 July 2013

Before toner — hot lead

Jack, our Client Services Co-ordinator, is no stranger to the written word. An article online has brought back memories of typesetting at the Wanganui Chronicle. He writes:

Memory of times past
With much enjoyment I read the Dominion Post article about the printing museum finding a new home. 

Take a look at the article on the Dominion Post website

In the article, Bill Nairn is pictured sitting at a typesetting machine (the erroneous caption on the website version refers to it as a printing press).

Setting slugs and dodging splashes
This Linotype machine enabled a character matrix, together with spacers that justified the line, to cast a ‘slug’ — a line of type. (That’s why these machines are called ‘linotypes’.) Each slug was created when a mixture that was mostly molten lead was forced into the mould, casting one line at a time.

The end result was rows of type that were assembled and inked. Paper was then placed on top and pressure applied to transfer the ink. Letterpress was born.

All Linotype operators have memories of ‘splashes’. These happened when the row of matrix were sent to the casting wheel and didn’t align with the mould. Skilled operators knew what was about to happen.

Down came the plunger squirting hot metal — not just over the machine, but also over any slow-moving operator. Health and safety was minimal in those days and the worst part was the time wasted clearing the metal from the Linotype. Usually 15 minutes and it was all go again. Fortunately the hot lead soon cooled, so you could peel it off your overalls like candle wax.

Real machines needed running repairs
Batteries of these machines lined the composing room of newspapers and commercial shops worldwide. Each required maintenance like any other machinery. Many moving parts such as cams, belts, slides, rails and the melting pots all needed attention to enable the machine to function best.

Labour intensive, each had its own character and a good operator produced millions of Ems and Ens of text during his time as an apprentice or a journeyman (not gender inclusive because it was very much a man’s trade).

Today most people understand that toner miraculously sticks to the paper, with no smudging, and copier problems are more about paper. Progress has brought us a long way.

Footnote: The first 12 of the 91 keys on the Linotype keyboard are etaoinshrdlu, a syndicate name I put on my weekly Golden Kiwi ticket. I never won a major prize, so no announcer ever had to try to pronounce it!

17 July 2013

Poor writing is not sustainable

Too many New Zealand businesses don't realise the huge impact unsustainable business practices are having on their bottom line. That was the clear point that Sustainable Edge consultant Annette Lusk made in a recent column on the Stuff website. ('NZ businesses behind in sustainability').

Too many businesses see sustainability as something that's 'nice to do for the greater good', she says, rather than something that has a huge impact on profits.
So true. And sustainability is about much more than just recycling your rubbish and using eco-lightbulbs. It's also about not wasting people's time and energy.

Not many people see their writing as part of their sustainability efforts, but in fact the words you write in any business come at a cost. When your people take too long to write something, or what they write doesn't do the job well, your production costs soar. You can measure that loss of productivity in wages and salaries, and in the resources you're wasting (ink, paper, hardware, and so on).

But poor writing is also costing you in other ways. Staff may take longer to understand and act on emails or instructions; and reports may have to go through many versions. Your clients may lose trust and loyalty if the way you write doesn't tally with your business brand and image.

Every business has a voice, and if your writing is letting you down, you have a problem. Poor writing is wasteful, and unsustainable for your business.

16 July 2013

Making the web more usable

We went to the recent launch of the New Zealand Government Web Standards.

The standards aim to ‘promote, establish, and ensure accessibility of the web’. They set standards for accessibility and usability for most government websites and intranets.

The standards replace an earlier set that was trickier to administer and update.

Rollout from 2014 to 2017
Government ministries and departments must begin to comply with the guidelines now, with a deadline of 2017. The order in which they attack the task depends on how ‘high stakes’ the web pages are. For example, these pages must conform by June 2014:
  • every home page
  • every ‘contact us’ page
  • every page containing ‘high stakes’ information, such as emergency services, health and safety matters, entitlements, and obligations.
Usability and accessibility
Some parts of the standards are technical, and some are simply common sense. They’re split into standards for usability and accessibility.

The standards aim to deliver usability for all. For example, they standardise the basic information required for a government website. Each site must have a link to, a ‘contact us’ page with standardised information, and pages on copyright and privacy.

They also specify requirements for accessibility, so that people with disabilities can use the websites without barriers. These standards comply with national and international conventions and acts. 

Learn more, read more
In our Web Lab we’ll include how to apply these principles to any website.
Read about Write’s Web Lab

And we can all thank the NZ Government Web Standards Working Group who got together in December 2012 to hammer out the guidelines.
Read the Government Web Standards 

09 July 2013

Some things defy categories

I went to see the latest show at Circa Theatre a few days ago. It’s called ‘C—a musical’, and it’s about the writer and director Paul Jenden’s experiences with cancer. At least, that’s the easiest way to describe it. Really, it’s a funny, touching, surreal, and rather outrageous show about how Jenden got through a difficult time, and how his fantasies helped him.  It also has divine music, composed by the talented Gareth Farr, a long-time collaborator with Jenden.

It’s a brilliant show, and deserves to be a total success.

But it has a problem—it doesn’t fit easily into any known genre, so it’s hard to categorise and describe. I was talking after the Opening Night to Danny Mulheron, a well known comedy actor who plays Jenden in the show. ‘I wish Paul had called it ‘Fantasies of Venice’, sighed Mulheron. ‘That would appeal better to the punters who think a show about cancer is going to be heavy and sad.’

That started me thinking about the importance of titles, and how much we human beings like to put things into boxes. We seem to feel safest when we know what to expect, and how to categorise things…even if those boxes and categories don’t entirely fit.

How do you describe something that falls between several categories? Especially if you have to catch people’s attention with just one pithy phrase? That’s the communication challenge ‘C—a musical’ faces. Most of us fall back on stock phrases like ‘It’s terrific’, or ‘really worth seeing’.  We may even say the show took us by surprise, or really moved us. All of that’s true. But there’s so much more to say. You’ll just have to see the show so you can categorise it for yourself.

08 July 2013

I regret adverbs

Adverbs. Yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck!

Feeling sentimental last night, I read through an email I sent friends when my baby was 2 weeks and 4 days old. I was horrified to see I hadn’t followed my own advice. I’d filled my writing with adverbs — ‘a most beautiful little creature’, ‘exceptionally relieved’ (my partner), ‘completely paranoid’ (me about baby-stealers), and the crowning glory: ‘liberally decorated in facial acne’ (the baby, not me!).

I bet I justified my fluffiness at the time by telling myself Hannah was worth every adverb in the world and more! But looking back on the writing, it comes across as sappy and drippy; nothing like my real-life personality.

I vow to never, ever, ever write an adverb again. Unless it’s absolutely, positively, unequivocally necessary.

05 July 2013

A visit to my sister's work

Yesterday, I watched my sister run a fantastic class at the Campbell Institute. The Campbell Institute teaches English to speakers of other languages. Watching Jacinta reminded me of how important it is to keep participants involved in learning. Passiveness in participants is the trainer’s enemy!
The Campbell Institute's website

 Jacinta’s students were giving each other 5-minute presentations about their countries — great speaking practice for those presenting, but the listeners could easily have tuned out. Jacinta kept them involved by noting down facts from the 5-minute talks. At the end of each talk, she used her notes to ask questions that the students could answer — if they’d listened.

That simple trick meant she had 100% of people engaged in the activity. Brilliant.

The experience gave me renewed respect for foreign people who have jobs in New Zealand. Imagine conducting business in a foreign language! Negotiating the subtle nuances of workplace politics can baffle people who are born here, let alone people who come from overseas. I take my hat off to anyone whose job requires them to write in English when it’s not their first language.

14 June 2013

CAPITALS are gone from US Navy messages

It’s official in the US Navy. CAPITALS are out. Sentence case is in.

The US Navy estimates savings of US$15m, as they'll now be able to send messages by ordinary email rather than specialised systems. 

The former ‘all capitals’ rule was a hangover from 19th century teletype machines, which didn’t have lower case letters.

The Navy also says that sentence case is more readable. We agree. The letter shapes are easier to identify, and the reader doesn’t feel like they’re being shouted at. And sentence case is the modern way to write.

Read the BBC news item about the decision

Read the media release from US Fleet Cyber Command

Not sure what the differences are between the ‘cases’ that typesetters use? A case is the way you use capitals to punctuate your writing.
  • Title Case Looks Like This — Most of the Words Start With a Capital Letter.
  • This is sentence case, with a capital letter at the start, capital letters for any proper nouns like ‘US Navy’, and a full stop at the end. 

23 May 2013

Why jargon isn’t thinking outside the box

‘Thinking outside the box’ probably sounded very cool the first time someone said it in a meeting room.

Jargon genesis
You can see the scene. The large meeting table. The stale air. The cold coffee. The sense of mild desperation.

The guy in charge (forgive me — I’m thinking in stereotypes) says, 'People, we have to think outside the box here' and the meeting is galvanised. The execs depart inspired. They have a bounce in their step.

'Think outside the box. That's really powerful,' they all think. And whenever they can, they try to conjure up some of the magic from that meeting. They say, 'think outside the box'.

Others like it too. It spreads like a virus, corporate to corporate. A new piece of jargon is born.

Language in the long term
When you read it in a report in 15 years time, ‘thinking outside the box’ will sound just as dated as the buzzwords of the 1990s — no longer flavour of the month. The report will lose a little of its relevance, and the writer a little of their authority.

Have the courage to think originally — outside the box. Write the plain phrases that have stood the test of time. In your choice of words, be sincere and be timeless.

Because when you say ‘think outside the box’, you’re talking inside the box.

14 May 2013

Working with people's different learning styles

We've been enjoying our partnership with Trish Stonestreet of Maygrove Management. Trish and Write trainer Helen Wise together offer Authenticity — Training for Trainers.

A topic that often comes up on Trish's workshops is how to work effectively with people's different learning styles. In recent posts on her own blog, Trish offers some helpful tips for helping kinesthetic learners get the most out of training.

Tips from Trish on working with kinesthetic learners

And in this post she offers information on other learning styles:

More about other learning styles

Reserve your place on Authenticity - Training for Trainers

06 May 2013

Regarding 'regards'

I hate the word 'regards'.

'I'm ringing you regards your claim...'
 'Re: your concerns about our re-widgeting service'
 'Regarding our conversation yesterday...'

Whatever’s coming next, I think, it won’t be good news. The tone sets my teeth on edge. It just sounds like a word you'd use in an earlier age, perhaps the 1930s, when it might have sounded both suave and deferential.

The time for ‘regards’ has gone, I think. To me, it sounds like the rote mutterings of a bureaucratic zombie. Something said by someone who feels defensive, perhaps powerless, and wants to hide behind words to and stick to the script, no matter (regardless) of what they’re really thinking.

Write as you'd really talk
Who says 'regards' when they're having a brew (hot or cold...) with a friend? Or talking with their 10-year-old child?

If we want our writing to connect with our readers, we need to use the direct words we’d use when we’re talking. Really talking. So why not just say 'about'? ‘Even though’?

Okay, I've got that off my chest. Thank you for reading. So what's your least favourite word?

Oh, one more thing. A colleague of mine in London once said ‘irregardless’. Gentle reader, I simply gaped.

12 April 2013

Brain gym - contranyms are synonym-antonyms

Did your alarm go 'off' this morning before you turned it 'off'? And is anyone 'left' at your party after the others have 'left' the party?

If you love language, you probably know about synonyms and antonyms - words that are similar and words that are opposite. Did you know that words can be synonyms and antonyms at the same time? Have a look at these contranyms  in mental_floss.

10 April 2013

Think like a Tui ad!

My husband and I recently took some overseas guests on a tour of the Tui factory in Feilding. When I sent our 'Make your own billboard' effort to friends and family, plenty of laughter and comment followed.

In our circle it was a worthy ‘ad’ that spoke loud and clear. Why? We don't drink.

So the four words from us and two from Tui actually said 'David and Lynda went to the Tui factory. We know they didn't do any beer tasting because they don't drink alcohol. They wouldn't even think of it! Even the thought of them going to a beer factory is odd. But they were pretty good sports to join in the fun’. A 50 word story perfectly told in just 6 words.

Tui ads are a brilliant example of plain English  — a few short words, chosen to convey a powerful message and perfectly pitched to connect with the audience.

So ‘Think like a Tui ad’ is the new slogan at our place. You’re welcome to share it!

19 March 2013

Do you take your lists with or without semicolons?

How do you format your bulleted lists?

Many of our clients prefer the traditional legal format that uses semicolons at the end of each bulleted item, with 'and' or 'or' at the end of the second-to-last item. 

Avoid visual clutter

We have a plain English prejudice against semicolons in bulleted lists. Semicolons are ‘visual clutter’. Scientific research suggests that visual clutter impacts on a reader’s ability to focus. People find it much more difficult to recognise things in the midst of clutter.
The most widespread impediment to reading and object recognition … is the mysterious process known as crowding, which is the deleterious effect of clutter ...

Objects that can be easily identified in isolation seem indistinct and jumbled in clutter ... Crowding impairs not only discrimination of object features and contours, but also the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to objects in clutter. [Visual Crowding: A fundamental limit on conscious perception and object recognition, David Whitney and Dennis M. Levi]

Focus on readability

Semicolons make the document look more legalistic, more difficult, and less reader-friendly, which sets the reader up to believe they are going to have difficulty reading it.

So our plain English approach when writing bulleted lists is to leave out semicolons and those extra 'ands' and 'ors'. Instead, we make sure that the context makes it clear how many of the bullet points apply.

If necessary, we change the stem sentence so that the reader can’t be mistaken. For example, we might write a stem sentences that says: 'as long as one of the following applies...'

Small changes can have a big effect on readability and tone.

26 February 2013

A conversation about health literacy with Lorna Bingham, Diabetes Nurse Specialist and Nurse Practitioner candidate, Capital & Coast District Health Board

I had a conversation about health literacy with Lorna Bingham, Diabetes Nurse Specialist and Nurse Practitioner candidate, Capital & Coast District Health Board.

Lorna says that her goal for her patients is that they have the confidence and competence to manage their daily lives while living well with diabetes.

She assures them that they will be able to master the skills to do the daily tasks of diabetes and she supports them until they can.

Health literacy’s role in living well
Diabetes is a complex, long-term condition. It takes its toll over time, so protecting yourself and preventing complications is important.

Living with a long-term condition has two parts — managing the tasks of living well in your daily life, and managing the whole spectrum of your life.

To live well with diabetes requires good health literacy — to understand what diabetes is, what you have to do to take care of your body, and why that’s important.

Small steps every day and good conversations

Diabetes requires people’s attention every day. To support people in their daily tasks, Lorna teaches them about insulin and how to manage their medicines; she teaches them how to recognise problems early so the problems don’t become complications, how to solve them and, of course, how to live well with diabetes.

Lorna develops the health literacy of her patients by normalising the daily tasks of living with diabetes  — testing blood sugar levels, self-injecting, and balancing exercise and diet — and by supporting people while they practise. ‘ It’s important to normalise the daily tasks,’ Lorna says, ‘so that people know how to manage the problems that develop from time to time in any long-term condition.’

It takes time and practice to develop the knowledge, confidence, and competence to manage all aspects of diabetes in your daily life. Lorna believes that given adequate support most people with diabetes can manage most tasks well, most of the time.  It’s a matter of taking small steps, talking and waiting, drawing diagrams, and talking and waiting — and keeping the conversation going.

by Rosie Knight

25 February 2013

22 February 2013

Get off the bus with that language!

I spotted this sign on one of the new Go Wellington buses.

The word ‘standees’ bothered me. I wonder if the sign could just say ‘Please don’t stand behind this line’.

At first I thought they’d made a laughable mistake, and that ‘standee’ meant ‘person or thing being stood on’. But no; Go Wellington has used ‘standee’ correctly. I checked the Oxford Dictionary and I stand corrected. Their use of ‘standee’ is spot on, even if it isn’t commonly used. The big book says:

standee: noun — a person who is standing rather than seated, especially in a passenger vehicle.

But is ‘standee’ plain and clear? If English wasn't your first language, would you immediately get the message? Many bus passengers are new to New Zealand and may not understand it on first reading.

And it’s exactly the kind of bureaucratic language that makes customers feel distanced from the Council, which does so much to serve them. I’m a big fan of the Wellington City Council and its services and amenities.

But this language is absolutely positively not reader-focused!

01 February 2013

Moving to client-centred writing

Good ideas unite people. The international plain language network is a group of people who know that plain language is good for business. And they’re generous about sharing their knowledge. This week, Gerry Galacio from the LinkedIn Plain Language Advocates group shared a list of seven case studies and resources, when a member asked how an organisation can manage the change to client-centred writing.

One of Gerry’s case studies was an article by Write’s Christine Smith, ‘Leaving Legalese Behind’ (Clarity Number 61 May 2009, 29–32). Christine tells how AJ Park, a New Zealand intellectual property law firm, started and maintains its plain language programme. In 2013, Christine is still helping our clients change their writing culture, and AJ Park remains committed to clear communication.

Read Christine’s article on pages 29–32 at

And look out for more stories from Write in Lynda Harris’s book due out this year. The book will capture the change model and the stories of several organisations that have successfully developed a plain language culture.

28 January 2013

Testing, testing, 1-2-3...

If you're a business or government writer, it's a fair assumption that you want people to understand what you write. If you've read a lot of business and government documents, that assumption may take a battering.
In Writing for dollars, writing to please, Joseph Kimble gives three reasons why writers fail to write in a way that works for readers: 'lack of will, lack of skill, and lack of time.' We agree.

If you have the will, but not the time, you might need help to look at your document and understand what's wrong and how to fix it. You can fill that common skill gap by commissioning user testing and document assessment.

The two techniques reinforce one another, and we recommend both.

It's easier to show you than to tell you more - take a look at the user testing and WriteMark assessment report we included in a recent submission on KiwiSaver Regulations. (The link takes you to the website of the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment.)

Here's what you can expect from such a report.
  • User testing finds typical members of your target audience group, puts the document in their hands, and reports on the results. An expert facilitator can draw all sorts of information out of the test readers, and careful analysis of the interviews turns this into practical recommendations that will strengthen your document and improve your results.
  • Document assessment measures the document against an agreed plain English standard. The resulting report tells you the document's weaknesses (with examples) and strengths. You can easily see what needs fixing to make your document easy to understand and act on.
Read more about Joe's book in Steve O'Hagan's review, which we posted last November

22 January 2013

Frustration fuels plain language in Portugal

We’re delighted to have hosted Sandra Fisher-Martins, a leading light in the world movement for plain language. Sandra has a business in Lisbon, and also runs an advocacy campaign and offers a ‘plain language seal of quality’.

We’ve met Sandra at Clarity conferences in 2010 (when it was held in Lisbon) and 2011. She’s in New Zealand to visit family, and made a side trip to talk plain language with us.

Frustration and fairness
Frustration drove Sandra to establish Portugal’s first plain language consultancy, Portugu√™s Claro, in 2007. Sandra says she is ‘passionate and stubborn’. ‘I’m moved by a sense of fairness.’

Her own experience got her thinking. When she returned from London to Portugal, she did all the things you have to do when you move — get somewhere to live, sort out the utilities, get insurance… She found the forms really difficult to understand. ‘I thought to myself, I’m struggling with this and I’m intelligent. I’ve got a good education. Why does it have to be like this? I have to do something!’

Low literacy disadvantages many
Portugal’s low literacy levels make plain language even more important. Eighty percent of Portuguese people lack the literacy to understand the written information they need in their daily lives.

Sandra has a newspaper ad in a frame on her office wall. ‘It says that you can pay less social security if your earnings are low. That’s great. But the language it uses is complicated and legalistic. Very few of the people who could benefit would be able to read the ad!’

Sandra speaks about the social impact of language in her TEDtalk 'The Right to Understand'.

A Portuguese WriteMark
She and her husband James have also established an advocacy organisation, Claro. Claro has its own version of the New Zealand WriteMark — a quality mark for plain language writing. It’s called the Selo Claro, and it’s been awarded to Portugal’s state roading agency ANSR, and television company ZON.

16 January 2013

What I read in the holidays

Here at Write, we're great readers. During the working year we don't often get the chance to read just to relax. But in the holidays we read all kinds of books, articles, and magazines. I've been enjoying Andrew Blackwell's Visit Sunny Chernobyl and Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places. I admit this book title may not sound like a relaxing read, but Andrew Blackwell writes about serious topics in a compelling style with a good dose of humour to help the messages get through.

Chapter 1 is a fascinating story about his visit to Chernobyl. And it includes a really good explanation in plain English of nuclear fission.

I googled 'nuclear fission'. gave this explanation 4 out of 5 stars for usefulness for my age (adult) with a basic level of knowledge – see what you think.
An explanation of nuclear fission

But Andrew Blackwell's explanation works for me and gives me just the amount of information I need to know right now. It starts like this:
Oh, fission. People make it sound so complicated, but any chump can get the basics. It involves – to skip most of the physics – piling up a giant stack of purified uranium to make your reactor's core. You'll have to mix some graphite in with the uranium, to mellow out the neutrons it's emitting.
We good? Okay. Once you've got the core together, install some plumbing in it so you can run water through to carry off the heat, and then just stand back and cross your fingers.
A few of the uranium atoms in your core will spontaneously split – they're funny that way – and when they do, they'll give off heat and some neutrons. It doesn't matter if you don't know what neutrons are, other than that they're tiny and will shoot off like bullets, colliding with neighboring uranium atoms and causing them to split. This will give off more heat and more neutrons, which will cause still further atoms to split, and so on, and so on, and so on. The immense heat created by this chain reaction will heat the water, which will create the steam, which will spin the turbines at terrifying speed, which will turn the generators, which will create an ungodly amount of electricity, which will be used to keep office buildings uncomfortably cold in the middle of summer.
So far, so good. 
He then goes on to explain how the control rods work – and what happens when the chain reaction gets out of control.

Notice how Blackwell speaks directly to you, the reader, and uses the active voice rather than the passive. And he tells a story that draws you in and leads to a strong conclusion. He goes on to explain how pulling the control rods out lets the chain reaction begin. Then:
But pull the control rods out slowly, okay? And for the love of God, please – please – put them back when you're done.
So think about your readers, especially when writing about technical topics. In the appropriate setting, a clear, chatty explanation may be just what your readers are looking for. Especially when they're on holiday.

Want to buy a copy of Andrew Blackwell's book?

08 January 2013

The good news about 2012

We read some great news to start 2013. According to The Spectator, 2012 may have been the greatest year in human history.

From a global perspective, prosperity, economic equality, and life expectancy have grown. There is less poverty and disease. There have been fewer deaths in wars in the past decade than at any time in the previous century.

Gerry McGovern comments that in a media-saturated world, it's easy to sell a story about a horrific car crash. A story about 100,000 people driving safely to work would get fewer readers.

The Spectator's article offers good news that usually flies under the radar. You'll see that their piece attracted flaming comments. But take a look. It could give you a brighter perspective on the year ahead.

Why 2012 was the best year ever