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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26 June 2014

Plain beautiful

Our passion is plain English, but some people seem to think ‘plain’ means ‘unadorned’ rather than ‘clear’.

To us, plain English is text that the intended readers find easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to act on. A suitable tone for the audience and purpose is part of plain English (and one of the key criteria we use when assessing documents). Structure is part of plain English. Layout is part of plain English. Elegance is part of plain English.
Plain English is the style of Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain, and Justice Holmes, and George Orwell, and Winston Churchill, and E.B. White. Plain words are eternally fresh and fit. More than that, they are capable of great power and dignity: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good." (Joseph Kimble Answering the Critics of Plain Language)
Joseph Conrad wrote in plain English, as does Kate Grenville. The American Constitution is written in plain English. Steve Jobs consistently worked magic with plain English. Plain words and plain meaning enhance the emotional impact on the reader. Nothing gets in the way of the emotional experience. ‘Plain’ is not boring; ‘plain’, well done, is beautiful.

25 June 2014

Good, better, best

For me, this last week has underscored the value of peer review.

I love a challenge

I’ve been working on a project chock full of elements that make me love my job. It’s a complex piece of information design. It’s a form that will be given to people for whom reading is a challenge, though it will be filled in by professionals. The form needs to work for both audiences, as well as meeting legal requirements for informed consent. And it’s a project that, done well, will make a difference for a fragile segment of society.

Because the time frame is very tight (and because I was having fun), I worked over the weekend. I spent all Saturday at my computer, and woke up on Sunday morning with some more ideas.

A job well done?

I was buzzing by Monday; so proud of what I’d achieved. But our in-house process calls for peer review, so I sent the document off to a colleague. I figured she might pick up some small proof reading errors, and maybe comment on the big difference I’d made in the rewrite.

Pride goes before a fall

Back came a tracked-changes version covered with comments, questions, and highlights – and a page-length covering email pointing out some things I hadn’t thought about.

As I worked my way through her draft, I realised that the peer review shone a spotlight on a large hole at the start of the form. My colleague’s suggested changes showed that she’d misunderstood who was going to fill out the form. Once I rewrote the instructions paragraph on the first page to make this important point clear, I could delete a lot of her comments and questions.

A job better done

I’m really proud of the final draft that has gone to the client. I had done a good job. Thanks to my colleague, we’ve now done an even better job.

Talk to us about training in being a good peer reviewer
Talk to us about rewriting your forms

19 June 2014

A conversation with you about health literacy

In my Conversations about health literacy with health providers, we talk about how they communicate health messages to their patients and clients.

I hear about the same challenges in every conversation:

  • how to use the language of health and medicine so that people can act on the message
  • how to reduce the complexity of everything. 

As we manage our lives, protect our health, and treat our illnesses, we all have to meet these challenges; understand the language and reduce the complexity, so that we can use the information. In a way, the language of health is a foreign language; you have to find out what the words mean so you can use them.

Develop a dual language to deliver your health messages
We recommend that health providers develop a dual language — a medical language to talk to their colleagues, and an everyday language to explain medical terms to their patients and clients.

Use a universal approach to health literacy
At Write we recommend a universal approach to communicating with a public audience or unknown readers. You can’t tell by looking who can read well or whether they understand.

People who work in health will recognise the value of a universal approach; they know the principles of infection control. They use ‘universal precautions’ because you can’t tell by looking who has an infection.

Our universal approach is to consistently apply plain language techniques when you give someone information. Using plain language techniques every time you write or talk gives readers and listeners a better chance of understanding and using the information for their benefit.

Learn more about reducing the complexity of everything in Helen Osborne’s regular Health Literacy Out Loud podcasts

And if you’d like to have a conversation about health literacy, please email me. Or we can do a coaching session or a workshop on delivering health information.

Contact us to talk about:

  • health literacy 
  • health information that people can read or hear, understand, and use
  • reducing the complexity of everything
  • applying plain language techniques to make your messages clear
  • developing a dual language for your profession.

18 June 2014

Is your infographic a handy visualisation or a picture puzzle?

Quote: 'Make things as simple as possible...but not simpler.' -Einstein
Image from infographic made by glow new media | 
Infographics are officially A Thing. We see them all over the place, from websites to magazines; from annual reports to the news on TV.

Francesco Franchi of Il Sole 24 ORE, one of Italy’s top financial newspapers, has a great quote about ‘infographic thinking’:
This isn’t just ‘how to make some numbers and vector graphics look clever together’. It’s a narrative language — it’s ‘representation plus interpretation to develop an idea’.
A good infographic can help you make your point clear and compelling. An infographic can be more compelling than a traditional graph or diagram. Conveying your message clearly is almost as important as having a good message in the first place. But not all infographics in business documents are clear or compelling.

The basic principles of plain English for written content translate well into good practice for infographics. Here are three questions to ask yourself before you unleash your latest creation on your colleagues or clients.

1. Does your infographic have one simple message?

Some infographics try to make many points with one image. In business writing, it’s good to separate your information into small chunks that are easy to consume. The same goes for infographics. Avoid the temptation to pack everything in!

2. Does your infographic add anything to the text?

Visual presentation can be a great way to get across quantitative information — particularly the change in something, or the relative values of two things. But it can draw the reader’s attention away from the text, and you have less control over when and how it is read — before or after the text, or with or without context. Think of your key message, and make sure that’s what your infographic illustrates.

3. Does your infographic present only relevant information?

Data-visualisation guru Edward Tufte’s charts and graphs are legendary for presenting all the right information with no ‘fat’. An infographic is just the same — you can’t assume your reader will see past any ‘noise’ to see your message. Use just enough detail and information to get your point across, and nothing more. Don’t use a general diagram to illustrate a specific point, and think about what you can take out without losing meaning.

We work with clients to improve their approach to infographics. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more about our techniques for developing clear, compelling infographics.

16 June 2014

Who cares about spelling?

One of our friends sent us that email about the incredible brain. You know the one. It shows how we can read text even if the middle letters in the words are jumbled; even if they’re replaced by other symbols.

The email concluded that spelling doesn’t matter. I disagree with that conclusion for a couple of reasons. The most important point is that a careless writer assumes they can ignore people who can’t unjumble their letters to get their meaning (those who are not skilled readers). That’s not the point I want to make today, though.

My point has to do with the impression you make when you ignore spelling – or, for that matter, grammar or punctuation.

Think about it by analogy. You may think that wearing your underpants outside your trousers shows that you’re a superhero. You can do that. There is no law that stops you. You will still achieve the fundamental purpose of clothes; you’ll not offend public modesty, and you’ll stay warm. But people will make up their own mind about the message you send.

Similarly, you may think that ignoring the established patterns of English shows that you’re future-focused and free thinking. There is no law to stop you. Your readers may even understand what you’ve written. But people will make up their own minds about the message your carelessness sends.

10 June 2014

I like cooking my family and my pets

As the unpunctuated list in my headline shows, commas matter. But people are often vague about the rules for using them.

One persistent myth is that you should add a comma wherever you would pause for a breath when speaking. The trouble with this theory is that it depends on the reader knowing when pausing for a breath will benefit the meaning.

Pauses and punctuation (not just commas) are related. Both contribute to the meaning of whatever is being heard or read. But you can't depend on one to tell you how to do the other.

Save your family and pets. Learn the comma rules, and make your meaning clear.

06 June 2014

Giving and receiving feedback — you can learn these important and useful skills

Many of our clients ask us for coaching on how to give and receive feedback about writing. These are skills you can learn.

In our monthly Document Café sessions, we give you feedback about your documents. We’ll tell you over drinks and nibbles what works and what doesn’t; we’ll tell you how well the elements of good design in your document are working for your reader — the structure, the language, and the presentation.

Think of how the elements of good design work in the world outside writing — in beautiful houses, furniture, buildings, tools, and clothes. For this plain English specialist, patterns, colours, and shapes working well together make beautiful patchwork quilts. Quilting is an excellent outlet for a Write person’s skills.

Writers of documents and makers of quilts all seek feedback from others about what works and what doesn’t; that is, how well their patterns, words and colours, layout and shapes work together.

I attended a Kaffe Fassett quilting workshop earlier this year. Kaffe Fassett designs beautiful fabrics, and creates beautiful quilts. In the last hour of the workshop he gave useful and thoughtful feedback to each quilter. He found something positive in every person’s work, then skilfully led us through the elements of good design and how they could work together better in our quilts.

Giving useful feedback is what we do at the Document Café. You’re welcome to register and attend our next Document Café on Wednesday 11 June, 4.30–6pm.

It’s free. Or check out our document services here to learn how to give and receive feedback. Coffee only during work hours, but you’ll get the whole session to yourself.