Neil James—What’s in a name? The future for plain language in a converging communications profession (PLAIN 2013)

What’s in a name?

Neil James, executive director of the Plain English Foundation in Australia, asked us this question and did a bit of crystal-ball gazing at his plenary session at PLAIN 2013.

Plain language practitioners go by many titles—editor, technical communicator, business writer, and information designer, among others. Historically, we specialized in different types of documents—the plain language professionals worked on government and legal documents, the technical writers on engineering and technical documents, editors on books and magazines, etc.—and as a result, we found ourselves in institutional silos. For example, members of the Society for Technical Communication don’t often get a chance to exchange ideas with members of the International Institute for Information Design, and the Usability Professionals Association rarely talks to the International Association of Business Communicators. This fragmentation has hurt us, said James: “By being fragmented, we have allowed the organizations that we work for to downplay our importance. And what we do is damn important.”

Can we unite? Our differences are small, lying in the types of documents we work on and the extent of our intervention; we are on a spectrum of communication, not in silos. James offered this quote from Ginny Redish:

We really are all about the user experience. My definition of usability is identical to my definition of Plain Language, my definition of reader-focused writing, my definition of document design … We’re here to make the product work for people.

Plain language, as a profession, is pretty young, and it has evolved rapidly over the past few decades, expanding its focus from clear language to document structure and design and, more recently, to user testing. Because of communication convergence—the tendency for different communication fields over time to apply a common range of methods—it makes sense for us to consider converging as well. We face pressure from various fronts:

  • Technology: For example, desktop publishing has allowed us to collapse the roles of writer, editor, typesetter, designer, and proofreader into one
  • Information age: “Most of what’s on the Internet,” said James, “let’s face it, is crap.” Users will need us to mediate that vast ocean of information to get what they need.
  • State sanction: The U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010 is an example, and many other governments have recognized the need for clear communication with citizens.
  • Self-interest: By banding together, we can share resources, raise our profile, and maybe even raise our income.

What lies ahead for us? James proposes this plan:

  • Step 1: Start a dialogue—within each field and between fields.
  • Step 2: Do some research to nail down what we each do and what skills we have.
  • Step 3: Put the pieces together and consider federation or mergers.
  • Step 4: Engage stakeholders, working with academics to unify research and theory, working with industry to map out the benefits of what we do, and working with government for legislative support.
  • Step 5: Pick a name.

James predicts that we will eventually settle on “clear communication,” which captures the breadth of our work more comprehensively than any term that refers specifically to language or design. By uniting under a common name, we’ll be better able to push for formal standards and professional recognition.

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