EAC Conference 2012, Day 2—Plain language in 2012: what’s new?

The plain language movement is about 30 years old but is currently undergoing some exciting changes, including a push to recognize plain language as a profession. Dominique Joseph, a board member of the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) gave an overview of some of these developments and highlighted a key role that Canadians are playing in this international movement.

The International Plain Language Working Group includes members from such organizations as PLAIN, Clarity (which advocates for clear legal language), and the Center for Plain Language. It is advocating for a standard definition of plain language, along with formal training and certification based on certain standards. Its first recommendations were published in the Clarity journal in 2011.

Among the first new steps is a move towards a broader definition of plain language—namely, clear communication. According to the working group, “A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find, understand and use what they need.” One important aspect of this new definition is the notion of “intended readers”—writers are not catering to low-literacy readers but to the target audience, and the definition is outcomes based. Also, this definition explicitly incorporates design; usability in a holistic sense—not just at the word or sentence level—is a key consideration.

The European Union has funded the development of an international clear communication program, which consists of multidisciplinary courses designed to close the current educational gap and features a mix of plain language training, information design, and usability techniques. Although the main partners are European universities, a Canadian university—Simon Fraser University—has joined the project. It hopes to launch a pilot program in the fall of 2013. This program will be based partly on a survey of the work of plain language professionals to define course learning outcomes.

Plain language expert Karen Schriver undertook a project to review over 500 research papers, from a number of disciplines, including cognitive psychology and education, on how people read and how writing, design, and technology affect readers. The review covers everything from features at the whole-text level (e.g., summaries, headings, organization and genre cures, repetition, text density, and topical structure) to sentence-level features (e.g., syntax, voice, anaphora, negatives, embedded conditionals, etc.). She’s discovered that some commonly accepted guidelines are reinforced—for example, ragged right text helps readability and a type size of between 10 and 12 points is appropriate for most print documents but type size of between 12 and 14 points should be used on screen. However, she has found some gaps in the research—more attention should be given to graphics, for example—and has come across a few accepted ideas that have been disproved, such as Miller’s Law about having a list no longer than 7±2 items, which really applies only to short-term memory and not to writing. Having a concrete summary of the results of this research (Schriver is in the process of writing a book on this topic) will offer plain language practitioners credible and authoritative guidelines.

Another exciting recent development in the field of plain language was the signing into law of the Plain Writing Act on October 13, 2010. The law requires U.S. federal agencies to communicate using plain language. The European Commission also has a clear writing campaign that spans multiple languages and aims to improve the quality of original documents so that they’re easier to translate. It is launching a pilot project to add a quality control component—i.e., editing.

As Joe Kimble shows in the new edition of his book Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please, using plain language can save government and businesses a ton of money. The book features case studies that show the many benefits of plain language.

To find out more about where there plain language movement is heading, Joseph suggests the following:

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