Plain language is not a “dumbing down”

by carl on March 24, 2011

If writers and editors use plain language, they are more likely to connect with their readers, according to Debra Huron.

Huron, a trainer in plain language usage, faced an engaged audience at a local meeting of the Editors’ Association of Canada in Ottawa recently.

A key message of Huron’s was that plain language editing was definitely not “dumbing down the text.” Instead, plain language presents information at a level that meets the reader’s needs.

She explained the difference between the ways that ordinary editors and plain writing editors help authors connect with their readers.

“An editor advocates for the reader by helping the author hone his prose,” she said. “A plain writing editor advocates for all readers, both low literacy adults and literate readers.”

Plain language was developed by educational publishers in the 1950s and ’60s for testing textbooks. The publishers wanted to make sure that their textbooks were understandable to students in the grades for which the books were written.

Plain language is based on indexes that take these factors into account and try to minimize them:

  • syllables per word
  • words per sentence
  • percentage of sentences written in passive voice
  • difficult words

I found later that American web designer Christian Watson took Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and ran it through several readability-rating websites. He then posted the results on his website, smileycat.com. Although he doesn’t evaluate these sites, he lists their features and the readability scores he got for each.

Among the major readability indexes are the following:

  • SMOG index
  • Gunning fog index
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (used by Microsoft Word)
  • Flesch Reading Ease (used by Microsoft Word)

After Huron’s presentation, I discovered that the U.S. Congress had recently passed a plain language act that had been called for since 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed executive orders to make government regulations “cost-effective and easy-to-understand by those who were required to comply with them.” The U.S. bill went through under the sponsorship of Democrat and Republican lawmakers. President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act in October 2010, and a U.S. federal government website, www.plainlanguage.gov, is spreading the word. The Act requires clear government communication that the public can understand and use.

“The Plain Writing Act requires a simple change to business-as-usual that’ll make a big difference for anyone who’s ever filled out a tax return or received a government document,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Representative Bruce Braley (D-Iowa). ” Writing government documents in plain language will increase government accountability and will save Americans time and money.

The big principle of plain language is to not adhere to a fixed standard, but rather to achieve success in practice. Such success happens when the text is understandable to readers, enabling them to succeed in what they want to do. Depending on the text, the reader may want to enjoy a short story, hook a computer up to an HDTV, or complete an income tax return.

The plainlanguage.gov website published this plain language checklist for government editors and writers to use to evaluate their texts – the more checks, the better:

[ _ ] written for the average reader
[ _ ] organized to serve the reader’s needs
[ _ ] has useful headings
[ _ ] uses “you” and other pronouns to speak to the reader
[ _ ] uses active voice
[ _ ] uses short sections and sentences
[ _ ] uses the simplest tense possible—simple present is best
[ _ ] uses base verbs, not nominalizations (hidden verbs)
[ _ ] omits excess words
[ _ ] uses concrete, familiar words
[ _ ] uses “must” to express requirements; avoids the ambiguous word “shall”
[ _ ] places words carefully (avoids large gaps between the subject, the verb and
the object; puts exceptions last; places modifiers correctly)
[ _ ] uses lists and tables to simplify complex material
[ _ ] uses no more than two or three subordinate levels

This success can be measured by tests given to a sample of readers. When I was a technical writer, usability testers at conferences of the Society for Technical Communication and the Special Interest Group on Documentation of the Association of Computing Machinery (SIGDOC) told us that for software documentation, the rule was to test at least eight or 10 users to get accurate qualitative results. For quantitative results, you needed to test a much higher number.

But qualitative results could be all that is needed, such as a yes or no to the question “Did the user succeed in his or her task with the software?”

For example, using the documentation for WordPress and the Thesis add-on software, I recently succeeded in putting up my new website. That’s a qualitative test for success. I can say that the documentation worked, because I succeeded in my reader’s task.

On a more detailed level, you could ask whether the documentation helped me succeed in posting an icon of an article and linking to it, making the article itself open in a new window. The answer to that question is no. I discovered how to do that by trial and error, because the documentation did not even cover that particular user need.

The big question is “Who are you working for?” In Huron’s presentation, she asked us to divide ourselves according to our answers to that question. The groups that formed were those that chose the author, the author’s readers, someone else, and all of the above. The second-largest group was the one that answered “the authors’ readers.”

The largest group, however, answered “all of the above,” meaning the author, the author’s readers, and someone else (usually the publisher, the agency that pays the editor, or the editorial board). I was part of that group. So much for Jesus’ admonition that no man can serve two masters.

If an editor does work for all three interests, how can that editor push for the readers’ needs? My answer was to gently remind the author of the readers’ needs, convince the author to get on board, and then complete the edit for readers. If the publisher then objects, mention that the author agrees with your edit and point out to them the advantage of having happy and satisfied readers (read “customers”). If that fails, well … he who pays the piper calls the tune.

One unavoidable consequence of plain language editing is that it costs more for editing. It takes more time, so increased initial expenses are unavoidable. However, the decision to use plain language does not necessarily spring from a charitable impulse. Plain language saves money in the long run by reducing customer loss, users’ wasted time, and the costs of answering confused and annoyed users’ requests for explanation. In the United States, the Plain Writing Act mandates federal agencies to use plain language, so they have to find the time and money up front to do so.

In Canada, that is not always the practice, despite a federal government communications policy that has required plain language since at least 2004. The saddest moment at Huron’s presentation was when one participant told how her boss refused to let her edit a document that scored a readability requirement of 22 years of education. “He said that our readers understand that language,” she recalled. The editor doubted that this was true, but she could think of no recourse.

It’s up to each of us as editors to have a convincing reply ready that next time a publisher says that to one of us.

Debra Huron’s presentation, a program of the Editors’ Association of Canada National Capital Region branch, was held in the Rotary Room of the Travelodge Hotel in Ottawa on March 16, 2011.

[This article has 11% passive sentences, a 47.8% Flesch Reading Ease score, and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 11.6.]

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