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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31 January 2014

Write's top five blogs for 2013

Which of our blog posts did you click most last year? We blog about all kinds of topics. The value of clear writing — financially and philosophically. Grammar — everyone wants to know about the debates and the options. Financial literacy. Language usability. Books from our shelves. Our own pet peeves.

Here’s the 2013 hit parade — the top five posts from our blog Write Clearly.

1. Think like a Tui ad!
Yeah, right. No, really! Tui ads are short, succinct, and perfectly pitched to their audience, says Lynda Harris. But what’s special about the one that she posted on Tui’s DIY billboard at their factory?
Read how to think like a Tui ad 

2. Do you take your lists with or without semicolons?
Anne-Marie Chisnall describes the science behind readability and visual clutter.
Read more about more readability and visual clutter

3. A conversation about health literacy
In our 'Conversations' blog series, Rosie Knight talks to health providers about the techniques they use to make sure that communication with their patients works well both ways. She also delves into why health literacy improves patient outcomes, and saves health dollars. In this conversation Rosie talks to Lorna Bingham, Diabetes Nurse Specialist.
Read Rosie's conversation with Lorna Bingham

4. Poor writing is not sustainable
Too many New Zealand businesses don't realise the huge impact that unsustainable business practices are having on their bottom line. Diana Burns quotes sustainability consultant Annette Lusk. And Diana writes that sustainable writing has a huge impact on profits.
Read more about making business writing sustainable

5. Taking issue with issues (and other such euphemisms)
Diana Burns finds a kindred spirit in columnist Joe Bennett, with his attack on the word ‘provider’ (as in internet provider, education provider, and health provider). She reveals a trick we use at Write for generating ‘noun strings’, and why they are terrible things.
Read more about taking issue with issues
Click to tweet: Write’s top five blogs for 2013

30 January 2014

Link teeth with our health

I had a conversation about health literacy with Dr Moira Smith. Moira is a research fellow and PhD candidate in public health at the University of Otago in Wellington (UOW) and Deputy Director of the Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit at UOW.

The link between the health of our teeth and the health of our bodies
Moira is a dentist who knows that our teeth and gums mirror the health of our bodies. With 20 years’ experience in clinical practice, and her public health hat on, Moira promotes a ‘life course approach’ to dental care. That is, we teach children how to look after their teeth, make healthy and informed choices about what we eat and drink, and see the dentist once a year as a normal part of our healthcare — for life.

In the past, we didn’t connect the health of our teeth with the health of our bodies. Now we’re learning that our oral health in childhood is our oral health for life. Looking after our teeth and gums is an investment with good returns. It’s cheaper for individuals and for New Zealand than getting our teeth filled. And it’s cheaper than treating whole body diseases like obesity and cardiovascular disease. Researchers say that the bacteria that cause plaque on our teeth are the same family as the bacteria that cause plaque in our blood vessels.

Families need good health literacy to make good choices about food and drink
Health literacy is the knowledge we use about our health and our environment to make decisions about how we live.

The choices families make about their food and drinks, and how those products are promoted through sport, are among Moira’s special interests in public health. She says ‘The health literacy of families is an important component in their choices about what to eat and drink.’ However, she is concerned for the public’s health, and for children’s health in particular, when the voice of a brand, fuelled by advertising and marketing, is bigger than a family’s health literacy voice.

Our food environments are society’s environments
Our ‘food environment’ is not just one thing. It’s a complex web of interactions. Politics and people’s behaviour play a part. Current government thinking is to provide more education about nutrition, then allow personal choice and an individual approach.

But the commercial environment doesn’t make it easy for people to take an individual approach. As a society, we still have a lot to learn about making healthy choices. Reading food labels for example, requires a high level of health literacy — and good eyesight to read the print. So here’s the gap. We need more than good health literacy to make decisions about what our bodies and our children need. We also need critical thinking and good media literacy, so that we can be discerning about the marketing and promotion of food and drinks.

Here are some of the factors that get in the way of families making healthy choices.
  • Some regulations guide how manufacturers promote food, but the current regulations don’t make it easy for families to make healthy choices. 
  • Nutrition information on food labels is often hard to read because of the font size and colour. 
  • We’re trusting — ‘Food is on the supermarket shelf; therefore it must be OK’. 
View Moira’s talk at the University of Otago, Wellington, on New Zealand’s oral health 

Read the Ministry of Health’s health and nutrition guidelines for young people. 

Click to tweet: Link teeth with our health

28 January 2014

All power to the geeks

I'm sending a virtual bouquet to the New Plymouth teenager who has offered to help people correct the grammar in their online advertising, for free. Megan Smith, who is 17, was reported in her local daily newspaper as saying that she sees too many advertisements on websites like TradeMe that are just plain wrong. She thinks that poor spelling and grammatical mistakes are ruining the writers' chances of success, by reducing their credibility.

So Megan is offering to do something about it. She will correct people's copy for free, to make their advertisements error-free and less cringe-worthy. All right, I admit that last phrase is mine. But isn't it true? Basic spelling and grammatical errors do make many of us cringe.

And Megan is on to something when she says that she thinks grammatical mistakes reflect badly on the writer, and reduce their credibility. Mounting evidence supports her view.

The BBC reported in 2011 that spelling mistakes in web copy cost the website millions in online sales. A study by the Confederation of British Industry said spelling mistakes alone can cut online sales in half.

A report in the US business magazine Forbes quoted a study by the online grammar software company, Grammarly. It carried out a study of Linked-In profiles amongst professionals, and found that those with fewer grammatical mistakes in their profiles achieved better jobs. Few errors also correlated with more and better promotions, the study found.

And a British study by Global Lingo in 2013 found that 59% of those who took part would not use a company that had obvious grammatical or spelling mistakes on its website. When people were asked why, 61% of respondents said they wouldn't trust a company to provide a quality service if it had mistakes in its marketing material. A third of respondents simply said they'd be 'put off', and 20% said they would consider the company that made such mistakes 'unprofessional'.

So Megan Smith is definitely on to something. Good on her. And I love her reported comment that 'the geek thing is quite trendy now.' All power to the geeks.

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09 January 2014

Everyday Things are Broken

Office talk on the first day back turned to what we read on holiday.

Donald Norman’s book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ (published by Basic Books, 2002 edition) was a good holiday read. As the blurb on the back says, ‘It will do your heart good…’.

Norman’s book examines how people interact with Everyday Things — devices, equipment, appliances. He examines the tasks we need to perform to use Everyday Things, and they’re often not as straightforward as they should be. Norman is firmly on the side of the user.

We may blame ourselves when we can’t open this, or programme that. So it does your heart good when Norman clearly shows that struggling with the mechanical and information demands of everyday life is not always our fault. Many Everyday Things are not well designed.

So how do we cope? The answer is a complex mix of:
•  the psychology of human thought and knowledge — what we know about how things work
•  the psychology of Everyday Things — what information we get from how things look
•  the ability of designers to apply their knowledge of the first two points.

The designer needs to start with the goal to be achieved, consider the actions the user must do, make logical links between the tasks, and provide the user with visual clues.

We like Donald Norman’s debate about Everyday Things because we recognise the designer’s challenge with every document we write. The Write Plain English Standard mirrors the designer’s process — begin with the purpose of the task, consider what the reader must do, make logical links between chunks of information, and provide visual clues to make the reader’s task easy.

07 January 2014

10 New Year’s Resolutions — ‘What to do, and how not to do it’

  1. Passive voice will not be used in the writing of this author.
  2. Jargon will be the primary framework for communications from this operational silo.
  3. We’ll just ignore the buzzword that’s the elephant in the room, and keep our eyes to the ground as we do some blue-sky thinking.
  4. Something I learned when I studied business administration in 1982, and that I’m sticking to because it’s long-established best practice, is that recommendations in the report come at the end.
  5. Some of my words will be precise and familiar, but most of my words will be dubious, abstruse, and obfuscatory.
  6. In order to communicate the least opaque indication that the working group’s combined academic and professional expertise has leveraged our knowledge base in this specialisation, and to optimise our success of this product as a service in advance of its early April launch in San Francisco and Auckland to non-commercial markets, we will require a sentence length of a minimum of 45 words, and preferably in excess of this going forward.
  7. If you know there’s a word in a sentence that isn’t really adding much to the meaning, then it’s probably what’s called a clutter word, so feel free to leave it out.
  8. I’ll write the points in a bulleted list to agree with the grammar of the stem so that:
    •   the bullets flow on as if each forms the end of the sentence
    •   their construction is ‘parallel’
    •   check the list is no longer than seven bullets, without a page break,
        and put a full stop at the end
  9. Don’t make your readers think ‘WT? (what the…?)’. Tell them that acronyms are AOK if every IA, ICBM, LIM, and ITO is spelt out in full the first time it’s used.
  10. Our agency-wide mar-comms facilitation advisers have enacted for the sake of complete clarification and organisational probity an absolute and binding moratorium on the utilisation of adjectivally rich but potentially ambiguous noun strings.
  11. And finally, remember… The linguistic construction of normative value(s) furnishes a provisional lens for the analysis of the authentication of linguistic transparency.
(This last one is from the Write your own academic sentence generator. Try it for yourself!)