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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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.