5.0 out of 5 stars
Excellent new addition to the plain language library
By Gael Spivak
There are some standard books and web sites on plain language that any expert will suggest to interested people. A very good book has been added to that list is Plain Language in Plain English by Cheryl Stephens (founder of Plain Language Association InterNational, also known as PLAIN).
This book gives readers a very good overview of plain language techniques, including contributions from plain language experts from around the world. These experts are useful to quote when people want more than your opinion on what techniques to use or how to proceed on plain language training or planning.
The book shows you that plain language isn’t just about words. It’s also about how the text is organized, and how a publication is designed and laid out. And it follows its own advice: it’s easy to use because it is well designed.
You’ll find material in here that is similar to other good plain language books. There are, after all, only so many plain language techniques to be explained. But it has some extra sections that other books don’t have, such as
- a section on writing plainly for speeches and presentations
- an audience analysis form
- a document assessment tool
The section on implementing and managing a plain language project is very useful if you are in charge of this kind of project in an organization.
The author’s other new book, Plain Language in Organizations: An Action Plan, (written by Cheryl Stephens, with contributions from Kate Harrison Whiteside) is for the person in charge of a plain language project. It has lots of good advice that is given in a step-by-step approach for managing a plain language project. This includes promoting your plain language project, managing the change process, and making your project “stick.” This book is well worth the price.
by Liz Guthridge
“Get to the Point!” is great advice on two levels:
- If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, “the Point” is the nickname for Pt. Isabel, the country’s largest off-leash dog park.
- Wherever you are, if you get to the point quickly, you achieve these
- Convey your message the first time (or at least the second or third time…).
- Are easy to work with, which makes you a more valuable colleague.
- Are more credible and trustworthy.
So what are the best ways to get to the point?
One of my favorites is to speak in headlines. Figure out what the core element the individual you’re talking to wants to know. Then compose your main idea along with the three most salient points. After you get a reaction, you can determine whether you need to tell the full story. This tool can help you create verbal
headlines that are concise, cogent and compelling.
Another way is to use Plain Language in Plain English, which is the name of a wonderful new book. Cheryl Stephens and her 18 international contributors have compliled a comprehensive toolkit for anyone who wants to communicate clearly.
And computer programs are also available now too, especially in health care.
As for the book, it covers tips on understanding your audience, structuring your documents, writing, rewriting (of course!), checking for bias, and testing your writing.
The book’s test chapters were eye opening for me, especially since I’m most familiar with the basic Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level included in Microsoft Word®, which many people don’t even know about. (You have to turn the tests on to use them as part of spell check.)
For example, the book covers many other readability tests that assess how easy your text is to read as well as how interesting it is. Some of the newer tests are the Bog Index, the SMOG calculator, and the Strain and Mist Index.
And there’s more! The section on literacy task analysis, which is a relatively new test, explains how you can evaluate the ease by which your readers can complete the tasks included in your document. In other words, can they accurately complete the form you developed? The test measures the type and extent of thinking readers must do to complete the problems presented in your document. Very cool!
In an ideal world, you need a three-person work group to create the clearest, most usable documents, one of the book’s contributors maintains. The trio is a content expert, a writer, and a graphic designer. When that’s not possible (which is most of the time, I say), you need to think about what the missing expert would do in your situation.
Plain language can be a life and death situation. For example, several academic studies have examined the problems of poor health literacy and the effects on patients’ health, health care costs, and outcomes.
In the United States, the new federal program, Health Literacy Action Plan, promotes using simplified language.
Healthwise, a nonprofit provider of health information, is a great example of simple language in action. Healthwise has introduced online programs, called virtual conversations. They ask patients about their symptoms. Then based on the individuals’ answers, the programs review options individuals should consider. The conversations try to avoid medical jargon and terminology.
Check out the back-pain program, which won the 2010 Grand ClearMark Award from the Center for Plain Language, at http://www.healthwise.org/backconversation/.
So stop lifting heavy things (including weighty words) and beating around bushes. Join me at the point!
By Liz Guthridge
September 8, 2010
Lean Communications Blog
What and why you need to know about plain language
by Diane Macgregor
Plain language and information design are attempts at achieving successful communication with a target audience, but from different areas of specialty. The goal is the same. The techniques are similar or demand a similar rigor. The tools vary.
Writers focus on choosing and organizing words to convey information and ideas, with tools such as sentence length, voice, idiom, rhetoric, grammar, paragraphing, and headings.
Graphic designers focus on the visual presentation of those words (and the ideas behind them) through the arrangement of ink or pixels on a page, with tools such as fonts, colour, placement, images, graphics, illustrations, and white space.
Together they design documents that readers can and will read, documents that can and will achieve a specified purpose. The words and design work together to create clear communication. Document design includes both skill sets.
For me, the most engaging and successful projects are those that include a content expert, a writer, and a designer working as a team to create materials that work for a target audience. When that is not possible, the missing expert’s concerns and tools have to be used as best you can manage. So anyone working at creating clear, usable documents needs at least some training in the other areas, at least enough to know that these things matter and why and thus avoid the most hideous mistakes.
What Is Your Philosophy of Plain Language?
By William DuBay
For me, plain language means language that is easily read by the target audience. This always includes crafting the text to the grade level of the audience. For large public audiences this means the 9th-grade level, for texts regarding safety and health, the 5th-grade level. Greater reading ease improves comprehension, retention, reading speed, and reading perseverance. Nothing is more satisfying or effective in improving communications and the response of the audience. While the readability formulas are useful in adjusting a text to the reading level of an audience, you need a lot more than a readability score to make a text readable. You also need good skills in organization, composition, tone, design, and usability.