How to make documents readable in eight steps

by carl on April 19, 2011

When I heard about a one-day seminar on “Eight Step Editing,” a systematic way to make documents more readable, I signed up immediately.

The seminar was offered through the Ottawa area chapter of the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC).

The concept resonated with me. When I was an editor of an international magazine, I always made a number of passes on an article to make it accessible to non-experts. All editors do this, but there are different ideas about the order in which you should do the editing passes.

Jim Taylor, the Canadian writer and editor who came up with Eight Step Editing, used this order for the eight steps in his system:

  1. Shorten sentences (average length should be 18 words)
  2. Take out the trash (eliminate jargon or explain it)
  3. Overcome the negatives (a positive statement to replace a double negative)
  4. Deflate pomposity (keep it simple)
  5. Eliminate equations (avoid saying “is” whenever possible)
  6. Activate the passives (every sentence should have an active noun)
  7. Lead with strength (draw in the reader with your opening statement)
  8. Parade your paragraphs (use a logical structure and flow to your text)

In recognition of his contribution to the profession, Taylor was made an honorary life member of the Editors’ Association of Canada in 1993. By the time he retired in 2007, he had trained four other EAC members to lead the eight-step workshop. The session I took in Ottawa on April 5, 2011 was led by one of the four, Moira Rayner White.

White explained that several of the steps have their origins in plain language, an editing movement started in the 1950s by Rudolf Flesch, author of Why Johnny Can’t Read. Flesch took on William Safire of the New York Times on the acceptability of colloquialisms in plain language editing. Toward the end of his life, Safire became more willing to accept colloquialisms, according to Benjamin Zimmer, Safire’s successor at the On Language column of the New York Times.

Plain language has gained acceptance by governments seeking to communicate effectively with citizens and by international businesses needing clear, simple English to communicate with their customers.

Explaining the entire system of Eight Step Editing would take at least the six hours I spent at the seminar. But it’s possible to give a few glimpses of how it works.

One of the eight steps is to shorten sentences.

“When Chaucer wrote, sentences had 80 words, Shakespeare wrote 60-word sentences and today they are down to 15 to 20 words,” White said. “Yet universities even today don’t teach students to shorten sentences.”

She explained that she used plain language when she edited an essay that her daughter had written for a professor. “She got a terrible mark,” White said. “Students in university are taught to present an idea one way, then come back at it another way. That’s directly opposite to plain language.”

An editor is the intermediary between the writer and the reader. “But a writer’s chief concern is with the reader – so they will not have to do as much work to understand,” she added.

“There is a reader-writer loop. The writer transmits a message; the reader receives it,” White said. “If we as editors ensure that everything is in active voice, it’s easier for the reader. If the writer uses semicolons and subordinate clauses, he’s making the reader work harder.” It then it becomes the editor’s job to fix that mistake.

White suggested the grade levels that writers – and editors – should aim for:

The Canadian Revenue Agency found its tax form was at a second-year university level and claimed it rewrote it in plain language. However, I checked a 2,200-word sample of Form 5000-G: General Income Tax and Benefit Guide 2010 in e-text. Microsoft Word 2007 rated the sample at a reading level of 13.3, still at the level of a second-year university student.

Another of the eight steps is eliminating the “equations,” the verbs that turn the action into a noun. It isn’t just the verb “to be” that is the culprit here: seem, feel, become, and appear also remove any energy from a sentence.

I would argue that there are cases where you have to use “to be.” For example:

The old lady caught escaping the campsite in Georgia was really Jefferson Davis in disguise.
A spreadsheet is actually a specialized instance of a matrix.

White admitted that there are instances where low-energy sentences are what both writer and editor want. Mystery writer P.D. James, for example, uses a lot of equating verbs when planting her clues.

But these instances are rare. More often, the verb “to be” should be replaced by an action verb to convey meaning and energize the text.

Finally, it helps for an editor to become a bit un-English Canadian by acknowledging the feelings experienced while editing. There are four stages – each accompanied by strong emotions – that an editor goes through when editing a manuscript, White explained:
“The first stage is paralysis. It’s either so good or so bad you don’t know what to do with it.
“The second stage is contempt for the writer.
“The third stage is delusions of divinity, when you start to put your own words in the document– and that’s really dangerous.
“The fourth stage is mature acceptance. This stage is what my seminar is about: letting the writers’ words shine though.”

Moira Rayner White’s seminar on Eight Step Editing was offered as a day-long training session through the Editors’ Association of Canada – National Capital Region branch, at the Capital Hill Suites in Ottawa on April 5, 2011.

Results of Running an Eight-Step Editing Check on this Article:

  1. Shorten sentences – 16 words is average sentence length
  2. Take out the trash – No meaningless words or redundancies
  3. Overcome the negatives – 3 % or less of negatives
  4. Deflate pomposity – No pomposity
  5. Eliminate equations – 9.1 % “equating” verbs
  6. Activate the passives – 7 % passive sentences
  7. Lead with strength – strong lead paragraph
  8. Parade your paragraphs – strong, short paragraphs, all in order

My goal for this blog is to have less than 10 per cent in violations of steps 5, and 6, and to score less than 3 per cent in violations of the others.

Microsoft Word 2007 Readability Statistics for this article:

  • Passive sentences: 7 %
  • Flesch reading ease: 56.7 %
  • Flesch-Kincaid grade level: 9

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