Book review: Plain Language and Ethical Action

Clear communication advocates are used to telling prospective clients about the practical benefits—the savings in time, money, and effort—of plain language. But many plain language practitioners (and I’m among them) are motivated by more than the efficiency and expediency of a clear message. To us, demanding clarity and plain language is an overtly political act meant to redress power imbalances. Russell Willerton, who teaches in the technical communication program at Boise State University, gives ethical context to these interactions in his new book, Plain Language and Ethical Action: A Dialogic Approach to Technical Content in the Twenty-First Century (Routledge, 2015).

This book, Willerton explains in the preface, “is the first to focus on the ethical impacts of plain language: plain language gives citizens and consumers better access to their rights, and it combats the information apartheid that convoluted, overly complicated documents generate.” (p. xiii) He introduces what he calls the BUROC framework, used to identify

  • Bureaucratic,
  • Unfamiliar,
  • Rights Oriented, and
  • Critical

situations that call for plain language as an ethical imperative. Whereas other technical communication textbooks “provide extensive analysis of ethical scenarios that are drastic and dramatic, such as stealing intellectual property, fabricating or misrepresenting data, or whistleblowing” (p. xv), which don’t happen very often, Plain Language and Ethical Action focuses on more common situations that nevertheless raise important ethical issues. For example,

Plain-language laws and policies extend citizens’ freedoms: plain language bolsters the authority of law and respect for the justice system. The public’s right to understand the law coincides with the responsibility to follow the law. (p. 19)

Designed to be a resource in technical communication courses, each chapter ends with questions and exercises that reinforce the chapter’s concepts.

Willerton casts a wide net and approaches the topic of ethics and plain language from several directions, first introducing his BUROC model and summarizing quantitative and qualitative results from a survey he conducted with plain language practitioners around the world. These experts reviewed and commented on the BUROC framework and shared their perspectives on the relationship between plain language and ethics. Plain-language consultant Frances Gordon expressed a view similar to my own, saying, “I think that plain language without ethics is pointless. I believe that an ethical view is what differentiates plain language from related disciplines” (p. 61)

What makes a plain language communication ethical? Willerton provides an overview of ethics in the technical and professional communication literature, drawing heavily from philosopher Martin Buber’s writings about dialogic ethics. Buber contrasts I–It relationships, in which the communicator talks down to the other party, with I–You relationships, which involves respecting the other party and engaging in a meaningful dialogue and exchange of ideas. Ethical plain language is based on an I–You paradigm, and the two sides, despite their differences, work to meet at what Buber calls the narrow ridge, where communication can truly take place. Writes Willerton:

Through dialogic ethics and the ideal of the I–You relationship, the importance of clarity becomes paramount. The dialogic approach requires rhetors to view the audience not merely as important, but as essential to their own being. (p. 52)

Because plain language resources rarely get this theoretical, I read this chapter with great interest. At the core of ethical plain language, Willerton argues, is the dialogue between the communicator and the user, which lets the former be sensitive to the needs and limitations of the latter. The concepts he unearths in his review of technical communication literature share parallels with Howard Giles’s communication accommodation theory, which says that two parties hoping to communicate will adjust their speech patterns and mannerisms to minimize the differences between them. Under-accommodation can mean that the message won’t get through, whereas over-accommodation can be perceived as condescending. Striking the right balance of accommodation can be an iterative process involving continual feedback between the sender of the message and its recipient.

Willerton shows how these theories apply in practical terms for five initiatives:

“Each of these groups challenges the power differential that separates experts from nonexperts,” writes Willerton, “empowering consumers to act.” (p, 173)

The book also features in-depth profiles of six projects or organizations—many of them previous winners of the Center for Plain Language’s annual ClearMark Awards—that have applied ethical plain language practices to fulfill their mandates. These deeper dives include

  • Healthwise, a health information company in based in Boise, Idaho;
  • Civic Design, motivated by the butterfly ballot fiasco in the 2000 US elections to help county elections officials produce clear election materials;
  • the multi-year restyling of the Federal Court Rules;
  • CommonTerms, a volunteer-led effort in Sweden to simplify the terms and conditions that come with software;
  • Health Literacy Missouri, which provides health literacy training; and
  • Kleimann Communication Group, which produced mortgage documents that complied with the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA).

These deep dives give us a fascinating inside look into creative operations, small and large, that take plain language seriously. As a plain-language practitioner, I’m always looking for success stories to promote the cause of clear communication, and Willerton’s case studies are a treasure trove. They also show that the plain language community, though growing, is still small, and that the familiar names within these profiles are part of a collegial, supportive group of advocates working internationally to further the same cause.

Plain Language and Ethical Action is a refreshing synthesis of the informal conversations we’ve been having about what makes plain language a movement rather than simply a process or technique. I don’t hesitate to recommend this book to clear communication proponents, although I don’t think I’ll be using the BUROC framework in my own work. To me, the framework implies that situations in which plain language should be used are exceptions, but I prefer to think of them as the rule. Like universal precautions in healthcare to prevent infectious disease, plain language should be the default, with rare exceptions (for example, if you want to use abstruseness for literary effect, or if you are among specialists of equal expertise and jargon makes communication more efficient). I would also have loved to see Willerton take a risk and depart from the standard expectations of an academic monograph. (For one, I didn’t find the book’s subtitle particularly plain!) These minor quibbles aside, I’m grateful that Willerton has, with this book, given plain language practitioners the start of what I think will be an engaging and important conversation.

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