Communication Convergence 2014

Plain language advocates Cheryl Stephens and Katherine McManus teamed up with the Society for Technical Communication’s Autumn Jonssen and EAC-BC’s Amy Haagsma to organize the first Communication Convergence mini-conference as part of the Vancouver celebrations of International Plain Language Day, October 13. Because IPL Day coincides with Thanksgiving this year, we celebrated one weekend earlier, on October 5.

The afternoon included a networking buffet lunch, followed by three panel discussions. I was a panellist on the first, which explored the tendency for different communication fields to apply a common range of methods. Joining me were:

Frances Peck moderated.

The second panel looked at the real-world demand on communicators and featured

Katherine McManus moderated.

The third panel, hosted by

  • Lisa Mighton, director of communications and community liaison at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC
  • Paula LaBrie, marketing communications specialist;
  • and Cheryl Stephens, who moderated,

was more of an open discussion asking where we—as a community of communicators dedicated to plain language—go from here.

We had eleven speakers and three moderators, as well as plenty of comments and questions from the floor, so although the format made for invigorating discussion, I couldn’t capture everything that everyone said in my notes. Not pretending to do all of the participants justice, I’ll just give an overview of my impressions and the points I found most interesting. Because there was a lot of overlap among the three sessions, I’ll focus on the day’s themes rather than the specifics from each panel. (Find photos of the Communication Convergence event on IPL Day’s Twitter.)

Writing and editing for the audience (sometimes easier said than done)

We all agreed that the audience is paramount when we craft our communications. Joe Goodwill pointed out the importance of considering the audience’s cultural context, which can be very different from our own.

What can get especially tricky is when your work has to go through several layers of approval, said Heidi Turner. Frances Peck agreed: often at each of those levels managers and directors reintroduce jargon and officialese and undo all of the work you’ve done to make that text accessible. Turner always tries to advocate for plain language, telling those clients for whom she writes grants that “A funder won’t want to give you money just because you use big words,” but from a business standpoint she ultimately has to give her clients what they want, and sometimes they don’t have a very good idea of who their readers are.

How do you write for disparate audiences? Sometimes you have to create more than one document, and Stephens reminded us that there will always be some people we can’t reach with our writing. But if your hands are tied, Elizabeth Rains said to “use the plainest language possible that will satisfy your readers’ needs.” She firmly believes that “no matter what type of information you have, it can be explained simply. And you may find that you can use that same language to explain concepts to very, very different audiences.”

Tools and resources

Pam Drucker’s work as a technical communicator has evolved over the years; today, she no longer works on large manuals but instead writes individual articles or topics. Her most consulted resources include the

She also uses structured writing techniques (e.g., Information Mapping).

Plain language as a right

Beyond the arguments that clear communication is more efficient and will get better results, what motivates many advocates of plain language is that we feel it’s a human rights issue. Information can be life altering, sometimes life saving. Citizens need to understand their government’s legislation to participate in a democracy. People with health issues deserve to understand their treatment options to achieve the best health outcomes. What can we do get people the information they need?

Christabelle Kux-Kardos works with immigrants and seniors, among others, to help them access community and government services. Her approach is to do what she calls a literacy audit: she tries to step back and try to see the world through the lens of a new client. This process has shown her that some services, even essential ones, have poor signage and are hard to find, particularly if you don’t know the language well or aren’t comfortable with technology. She sees it as her responsibility to point out to those services what they could be doing better. A lot of her work, she said, involves talking with her clients to tease out the right questions. What don’t they know that they need to know? Often they don’t know what they don’t know.

Nicholson reminds us that for some people, there is value in misrepresentation. “There are circumstances in which people are vested in obfuscating,” she said. “We have to be loud enough to cut through the clutter.”

Beyond comprehension to persuasion

Did the audience understand the message? Achieving understanding is always the communicator’s goal, but should it stop there? How do we persuade people to act on that information?

Hompoth, an image consultant, said that we are judged on

  • how we look,
  • what we do,
  • what we say, and
  • how we say it.

What we say accounts for 7 percent of the message, but how we say it counts for 13 percent (with other non-verbal communication making up the balance). In other words, our delivery is more important than our content.

That reality certainly jibes with health and science communications. How best to achieve persuasion is an unanswered question from a knowledge translation point of view: we can present people with evidence that smoking harms health, but evidence alone isn’t enough to convince some smokers to quit. Whether our message spurs change depends on the audience’s level of motivation.

As much as some of us may shy away from marketing, if we really want to effect change, we may have to study it. Will a course in psychology eventually be a required part of communications training?

Communication in and from academia

Those who know me know that one of my life’s missions is to try to eradicate turgid writing from academia. Academese is unnecessary, it hinders understanding and collaboration, and, because research is mostly taxpayer funded, it is undemocratic. Part of my research in knowledge translation involves finding alternative means of communicating research so that stakeholders beyond a researcher’s own colleagues can find and use it. Journal articles haven’t fundamentally changed in sixty years: if you print one out, it will still be in tiny type, packed onto a page with no space to breathe.

But we are making some gains. Many journals, North American ones, especially, are more accepting now than ever of first-person pronouns in journal articles. The style can be more conversational, and as research necessarily gets more interdisciplinary, researchers are beginning to recognize that they need a lingua franca to work together, and that lingua franca is plain language. We still have a long way to go, but we can celebrate these small victories.

Jandciu’s programs at UBC try to tackle the problem earlier, with communications courses designed specifically for science students. Although the Faculty of Science had always acknowledged that its students needed to develop communication skills, it usually left that training to first-year English courses. Feedback from graduating students, though, showed that those courses weren’t adequately preparing them to write reports and scientific articles or prepare and give presentations. Now the Faculty of Science offers a first-year course that integrates communication into science training and helps students develop scientific arguments. A third-year course has students interview researchers and develop videos and podcasts. Even funders, said Jandciu, are wanting researchers to do more outreach using social media, videos, and multimedia. Research communication can no longer be just text based.

He occasionally still hears students say, “But I’m in science because I don’t like to write,” or “I can’t do presentations,” but after the courses they realize the value of being able to communicate their scientific expertise. They begin to grasp that a lot of legislation hinges on policy makers getting sound information, and right now scientists aren’t doing a good enough job getting it out to them or to the public. “We need science students to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science,” said Jandciu.

Jeff Richmond, a journalist, responded that a lot of blame is put on “the media” for distorting research. And although it’s true that some stories can get sensationalized, if you talk to individual journalists, they typically have the sincerest of intentions. How does the distortion happen, and how we can express ideas in plain language without altering the facts?

Increasing awareness and uptake of plain language

We were all preaching to the converted at Communication Convergence—we all understand the value of plain language. But not everyone thinks the way we do. Nicholson said that we know that clear communication is the ethical choice, but when it comes to convincing others, some people and organizations simply won’t respond unless you show them the economic benefits.

And Stephens said that although professional legal associations support plain language, there’s still a culture of resistance among practising lawyers. I believe the key is in subtle shifts—a kind of quiet rebellion. There are several tacks to plain language; do what you can within the bounds of the culture, but start gathering evidence that what you are doing is producing results.

Does the public at large realize what they’re missing when communication isn’t clear? How can we raise awareness of plain language?

Paula LaBrie suggested that we all find a way to celebrate International Plain Language Day at our workplaces and spread the word about it. Lisa Mighton said we should always look for opportunities to turn our work into a media story.

The ideas from the crowd reinforced the community’s need for a central repository of plain language information: research, case studies, history. I urged everyone to join the Clear Communication Wiki and start contributing to it. It has the potential to become a valuable resource, but it needs a critical mass of participation.

***

My key takeaway from Communication Convergence is that being able to say “I don’t understand” is a privilege. The most disenfranchised among us may not realize that there’s an alternative to confusing communication or may feel that revealing their lack of comprehension might make them look ignorant, compromising their position.

We communicators need to acknowledge our privilege and use it to push for change. “By not calling people on their poor communication practices,” said McManus, “we’re making people—maybe generations of people—put up with a lack of information. It becomes the responsibility of communicators not to just throw up our hands and give up.”

Stephens and McManus hope to make Communication Convergence an annual event. If you have ideas for session topics or speakers, get in touch via LinkedIn or Twitter.

Plain language and the historical rain shadow

“I have a theory about the Internet,” said John Maxwell.

“Oh?” I took a sip of my coffee and sat back. “Go on…”

“See, everything before, say, 1970 is old enough to be interesting history, so people have posted that information online. And everything after 1995 is already on the Internet. But there’s this rain shadow of about two and half decades that there isn’t all that much information about. I think there’s a huge opportunity for people to fill in that history.”

John was referring to his research project about Coach House Books (see my summary of an Alcuin Society talk of his on the subject here), but his rain shadow applies just as well to the modern plain language movement, which got its legs in the 1970s, when First National City Bank (now Citibank) revamped its mortgage documents and governments began to recognize the need for plain language communications. The Wikipedia page about plain language offers some history, but most of it is U.S. focused, and it’s far from exhaustive.

Plain Language Association INternational (PLAIN) co-founder and tireless plain language advocate Cheryl Stephens asked me to put together a display table of the organization’s history to celebrate PLAIN’s twentieth anniversary at last October’s PLAIN 2013 conference. Drawing from three boxes of archives, including copies of PLAIN’s old newsletter, Rapport, I made a poster showing some of the major international plain language milestones of the past two decades.

Of course, there’s only so much I could fit on a poster. The archives are replete with important, fascinating historical tidbits that deserve to be documented somewhere. But where?

The need for a plain language repository

At PLAIN 2013, what became clear to me was that the plain language community could really use a repository for:

  • Clear communication research: Is active voice easier to understand than passive? Is it better to use serif or sans serif body type? I’d love to be able to visit one site to find the latest evidence supporting plain language and clear communication principles. Not only would this research inform my own work, but it would support my efforts to persuade prospective clients and decision makers about the merits of plain language. The Plain Language Advocates group on LinkedIn is fertile ground for sharing links and discussing new research, but the links to the original articles aren’t centrally archived in a useful way.
  • Case studies: Having a handy set of before-and-after examples, as well as documentation of a plain language campaign’s impacts (particularly on efficiency and the bottom line), would be enormously useful for explaining what we do and why.
  • Plain language history: Our past—seeing our gains, our losses—lights the way forward. Acknowledging the contributions of the pioneers who have dedicated countless hours to this cause is an important reminder of what we need to do to keep going.

A wiki for clear communication

I’ve sung the praises of wikis in the past: their ease of editing makes them democratic and participatory. So, I’ve set up the Clear Communication Wiki on Wikia, and I encourage everyone from the plain language community to contribute to it. Over the next several months (or, more likely, years) I plan to populate the history section with what I gleaned from my historical project for PLAIN 2013, including what I couldn’t fit onto the poster. Anyone else with relevant historical sources is welcome to fill in the details as well.

I didn’t mean to be unilateral about establishing this wiki—mostly I needed a neutral place to post the Plain Language: Clear and Simple guides I rebuilt, and I figured the wiki could serve many purposes. If there’s already an active international hub for plain language information, I’d be happy to migrate my data there.

I can see the archive of research links eventually creating the need for a full-fledged searchable database of the articles themselves, but for now, I think a wiki is a good first step.

***

Many of the modern plain language movement’s most vocal advocates are either gone or are retiring. The community lost Robert Eagleson in 2013, and Annetta Cheek retired from the Center for Plain Language earlier this year. I don’t know if others are feeling a sense of urgency, but I am. Let’s talk to these pioneers about their experiences, their triumphs and setbacks, and get this history down while we can.

Book review: Supercommunicator: Explaining the Complicated So Anyone Can Understand

supercommunicator_1Frank J. Pietrucha is a communications specialist whose company, Definitive Communications, specializes in making highly technical topics accessible and meaningful to different audiences. It counts among its clients the International Intellectual Property Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Pietrucha’s book, Supercommunicator, was published by AMACOM, the book-publishing division of the American Management Association, and I was curious to see whether his advice to managers would jibe with the clear communication principles that plain language specialists are familiar with.

It does, for the most part, and Pietrucha is clear about the motivation for his book: “Every day great ideas fall by the wayside because they weren’t properly explained. To be successful in an increasingly competitive marketplace, you need to articulate a clear and easy-to-understand message to all relevant parties. Financiers, management, stockholders, board members, regulators, clients, analysts, and employees all demand clarity from you—and these days, business people don’t have the interest or patience to wade through ineffective communications.” (p. 5)

Pietrucha practises what he preaches, offering readers short, digestible chunks of information and advice in a conversational tone. The 230 pages of text are divided into nine parts—including “How digital technology is changing communication,” “Know thy audience,” and “Simplicity and clarity”—each with one to six brief chapters, so the book is a quick, unintimidating read. There’s a lot to like in this book:

It looks at more than one way to deliver a message

Pietrucha tackles not only written communication but also offers advice about how to give effective presentations. The goal of communicating in whatever form, he says, is not simply to give your audience information but to bring them meaning. Those of us who work in editing or in plain language likely focus a disproportionate amount of our energy on achieving comprehension and could learn a thing or two about how best to achieve persuasion; Supercommunicator deftly bridges that divide with solid tips about how to get your audience to care, by using storytelling, examples, and analogies to anchor the new information to their own experiences.

Throughout the book Pietrucha also highlights the importance of getting comfortable with digital media, which can offer new ways of reaching people, from videos that enhance a text to interactive infographics and data visualizations. He supports his advice with research from authoritative sources, including developmental molecular biologist John Medina, who, in establishing that “vision is our most dominant sense,” (p. 193) argues for the primacy of images over text, as well as Finnish researchers Kristian Kiili and Harri Ketamo, who have found that “Most game-based learning today is being done without significant pedagogical input… Players aren’t usually allowed to actively test their hypotheses and discovery new knowledge with what’s currently available.” (p. 224)

The latter example shows the importance of tempering enthusiasm about new communication technologies with sound judgment. Pietrucha writes, “Caught up in the gee-whiz excitement about digital tools, many of us forgot that good communication means bringing insight to an audience, not glitz. The widespread availability of graphics programs has opened a Pandora’s Box of visual stimuli, but much of what’s in there has been meaningless adornment.” (p. 205)

In short, become familiar with what technology can offer, but use it with care.

Supercommunicator advocates for an understanding of, and compassion for, your audience

Plain language folks know that audience is paramount, and Pietrucha is unequivocal about the importance learning as much as you can about what your audience does and doesn’t know when planning your communications:

Research is essential to understand your audience’s level of cultural awareness. The Internet has made the world a smaller place by making it easier for people to connect. This is great—but it also means we need to consider that not everyone who will view our web pages or see our videos will comprehend certain references. There are cultural traits we need to think about if our audience comes from a different part of the country or different country altogether. In the digital age, communicators need to be more sensitive to the fact that their audiences may approach their content from a completely different viewpoint. (pp. 72–73)

The onus, emphasizes Pietrucha throughout the book, is on the sender, not the receiver, to ensure the message gets through.

The book gives guidelines, not rules

As much as our jobs would be easier if we adhered to a black-and-white set of rules, effective communicators need to be flexible and exercise judgement. Writes Pietrucha:

Ideally, most of my suggestions would be embraced by a world ready to communicate complicated content more effectively. But in actuality, some organizations cling to the formality and stilted ways of yesteryears. Your judgment is necessary to determine the applicability of content in this book to your situation. It may be worthwhile for you to be a maverick and forge a new communication style for your company—yet, if you go too far it could mean professional trouble. (p. 6)

In some academic circles, for example, you may have to stick with third-person pronouns and the passive voice to have your communications taken seriously. Fortunately, even in academia the tide may be turning, according to Pietrucha:

Penn State University Professor Joe Schall did an informal survey of forty journals pulled from his university’s technical library to see if the authors of serious academic articles dared tread into the less formal territory of first person. He checked a range of less-than-blockbuster journals such as European Journal of Mineralogy, Spray Technology and Marketing, and Water Resources Journal and came up with some surprising results. He discovered that in thirty-two of the forty journals he surveyed, the authors “made liberal use of ‘I’ and ‘we’.” Schall concludes that the principle of third-person-only is either outdated or is in flux. (pp. 153–154)

Other “rules,” such as using short words and short sentences, can make for monotonous reading if unthinkingly applied. Judiciously bending or breaking those rules adds colour to communications and helps keeps audiences engaged.

The author is eminently quotable

For me, reading this book was a bit like being at a pep rally. Although most of the information wasn’t new to me, I still found myself nodding in agreement and busily transcribing passage after passage for quoting. Sometimes, in crafting an argument, you just need a pithy quote from a supportive source, and I’ll have Supercommunicator in my back pocket for just those occasions. I won’t overwhelm you with the 3,900 words I took down, but here are a few I’ll probably find some forum repeat:

Nothing kills good ideas like poorly written text. You could have found the cure for cancer or an alternative power source, but if you can’t articulate your concept clearly and intelligibly, you’re going to have a much harder time getting people to believe your claim. (p. 102)

In our rush to get more information quickly, we have less tolerance for roadblocks that prevent us from getting to the meat of the matter. “Don’t slow me down with big vocabulary words,” or “Don’t use jargon that only geeks can understand,” is the prevalent feeling among today’s digital citizens. (p. 102)

Elaborate words are ineffective if your audience is thinking more about your vocabulary than what you have to say. (p. 112)

Jargon makes people feel excluded. Communicating the complicated is about inclusivity, not exclusivity. (p. 112–113)

***

Supercommunicator is a quick, affirming read for the plain language specialist, but it could have been much stronger in a few important ways:

Whither the editor?

Pietrucha acknowledges that today’s multimedia communications can be complex affairs that take teams of people—including data visualization specialists, graphic designers, and programmers—to put together. The author even writes:

Make it error free

This is basic communication 101. Errors turn people off. Even if you are a neuroscience genius, you can’t expect your audience to appreciate your thoughts if they’re presented with error-filled content. Errors can destroy your credibility, no matter how smart you are. Use your spell and grammar check programs, but look out for other problems your personal computer may not catch. Work with a colleague to help you clean up your act. (p. 117)

As an editor, I’m always attuned to opportunities to promote the profession, and, consciously or not, Pietrucha missed a big one here. Why “work with a colleague” when professional language specialists can help you polish your text to high standards? Communications teams should always include an editor.

How do you know your communications work?

Although Supercommunicator devotes a section to getting to know your audience, it doesn’t mention user testing and revision as vital components of the clear communication process. It’s misleading to suggest—and naive to believe—that once you’ve done your audience research your communications will automatically be effective.

In a similar vein, learning from your mistakes and refining your communications are implied in the book but not made as explicit as they should be. Becoming an excellent communicator takes practice, and what I think would make this book more useful as a reference is a companion volume that features more before-and-after examples, as well as exercises to hone the communication skills that the book endorses.

Don’t neglect the index!

Nothing kills the potential for a book to become a time-tested reference like a weak index. Whether because of budget, time, or space constraints, this book’s index doesn’t do justice to its contents and will make it harder for a reader to look up specific topics. (Why isn’t there a cross-reference between “infographics” and “graphics”? And why isn’t “respect for audience” double-posted under “audience”?)

No, this book isn’t meant to be a textbook, but it could have stretched its usefulness and probably increased its readership if it had not only a better index but also more consistently structured chapters. As it stands, the chapters aren’t even organized in a similar way within each major part, which makes it harder for a reader to navigate the book and find the information they need.

***

Supercommunicator is a great primer or refresher—and I don’t hesitate to recommend it—but a lack of rigour in its organization and shortcomings in its index prevent it from being the indispensable reference it could be. Will it help you become a more effective writer and presenter? Possibly—but certainly not without practice.

Dominique Joseph on translation and the plain language writing process

Last week I asked for input about where translation fits into the plain language process. Editor, translator, and plain language specialist Dominique Joseph contributed such a well-thought-out response—so long she put it on a Google Doc rather than directly in the comments—that I felt leaving it buried would not do it justice. She’s given me permission to reproduce it in full here.

Do you have more thoughts to contribute to this discussion? How does translation fit into your plain language workflow? Let’s keep the conversation going, either here or in the original post.

***

Your post touches on so many fascinating topics, Iva!

I’ve chosen to focus, rather quickly, on these 5 aspects:

  1. How language-specific is plain language?
  2. If the original is in plain language, will the translation be, too?
  3. Where does translation fit in the writing process?
  4. Examples: translation in plain language (reader-focused) projects
  5. Short conclusion: the writing process

1. How language-specific is plain language

Surprisingly, it’s really not that language-specific. Apart from a few tiny details, what applies to English also applies to French (and to German, and Spanish, etc.).

An important distinction: I’m not talking here from a “narrow” plain language perspective, which focuses only on words and sentences. Instead, I’m talking from the wider (I’m tempted to say, more modern) “big plain language” or clear communication perspective.

It’s bigger than just words and sentences. The key elements:

  • focusing on the reader, the reader’s needs, the purpose of the document and the context of use (to produce a reader-focused, usable document);
  • then, deciding what to say, how to organize it, how to say it, how to present it visually.

Almost all of this applies to all Western languages. Although some potential problems or solutions may be language-specific, mostly at the sentence and word level (think of “on” in French, or noun chains in English), these peculiarities are but a tiny, tiny bit of the whole picture.

The most important parts of clear communication apply across languages. That’s something we actually discussed a fair bit as part of the IC Clear project. We wondered whether it made sense to teach clear communication and clear writing modules in English to a multilingual public, whether the contents would actually be useful to them. And we concluded that yes, it would be relevant, it would work.

To go back to the Government of Canada guides [Plain Language: Clear and Simple and Pour un style clair et simple]… The French and English could have been almost identical. It’s just that the teams decided to work independently and each produce their own guide.

For example, the section on testing is a lot more detailed in English than in French. But it didn’t have to be that way. Also, the French team decided to talk about punctuation, but the English team didn’t. Again, the difference comes from the authors’ choices, not from differences between both languages.

Since we’re talking about plain language across multiple languages, here are a few interesting links. These two are from the European Union:

  1. How to write clearly (available in 23 languages; scroll down to download a PDF)
  2. Clear writing newsletter (from the EU Translation section)

Also interesting: a discussion we had on the LinkedIn group “Plain Language Advocates.” Lots of interesting comments!

2. If the original is in plain language, will the translation be, too?

Many people assume that if you have a plain language original, the translation will automatically be in plain language. That’s wrong (sorry guys!).

It depends a lot on the translator. If you give the same text to 5 translators, you’ll get 5 different versions, some of which will be easier to read and understand than others. Some translators—like some writers—are better at producing clear, understandable texts.

What can help: choosing the translator wisely; giving him or her good info about the context, the users, the goals, etc.

3. Where does translation fit in the writing process

That’s a huge question! First, here are a few ideas. You’ll see examples in the next section.

Instead of seeing translation as one box to fit into the existing chain, I’d like to suggest another way to look at it. (It’s something I discovered around 2001, while working at Clarica. I learned later that Michel Gauthier, from the federal government, was also a fan of that same approach.)

This idea came from examining the writing process for a typical text.

Let’s assume we’re talking about an English text which will be translated into French. Think about all the skills, knowledge and experience that often go into creating the original: you’ll have subject matter experts, writers, people with experience in the field… all working together to produce the document.

Then it’s sent to a translator. One person. Who’s typically a language expert, not a subject matter expert, not an expert in the field (never had contact with the clients or the intended audience), and probably not an expert in clear writing either. Just one person, one set of skills, one pair of eyes.

Do you see the imbalance? We end up with many steps (and people and sets of skills) coming together for the original text, and only one step for the French version.

What I’ve found works very well is to “re-balance” that process so that the French version gets as much input as the English.

Basically, we’re restarting another writing process, but focused on the French.

That means using the translation not as a final version, but as a starting point. Then you bring together your French experts, writers and communicators (subject matter experts, people with experience in the field, etc.). You look at all aspects of the text—choice of information, structure, wording, design—and see whether they’ll fit your audience and context, and what can improved. And you test your document.

It’s not just a translation. It’s a “translation + adaptation and feedback” approach.

I’ve used it with excellent results. Michel Gauthier, too.

As for deciding, from the start, to write completely different documents, it’s not usually practical. And I think it’s rarely necessary.

Yes, there are some differences between anglophone and francophone audiences; but there are also huge differences between an East Coast dentist and a West Coast fisherman, even if they’re both anglophones. Yet, they have enough in common that one document is usually enough.

About when to send a text to translation:

What often works best, I think: waiting until the original text is basically finished… but making sure it’s still possible to make changes.

That’s because the translator will often ask questions that will help you clarify the original. And if you go through a “translation + adaptation/feedback” process, then any changes made to the French could inspire changes to the English, too.

4. Examples: translation in plain language projects

Here are 3 different scenarios.

1. Customer service letters at Clarica

We applied the “translation + adaptation” process quite a few times. So when an important letter came back from translation, I would gather a few good people together, and we’d make the text more reader friendly. It worked beautifully.

Note: By the way… I’m sure this idea is making a few people cringe. We’ve all had baaad experiences with bilingual employees “improving” a translation…  But it does work very well if you have strong, knowledgeable writers and experts working on the revision.

Note 2: I had management approval to rework customer service documents that way. I was in a good position to do that, since I was working at improving the quality of French in the company. (Plus, by that time, I had spent 6 years in the translation department and worked on the company’s “complex complaints” team, all valuable experience.)

2. Simplifying a huge insurance contract at Desjardins Financial Security

Four people (2 writers, 1 lawyer, 1 actuary) worked on this project on top of their other responsibilities for 2 years. They were all knew to plain language and learning as they went. They focused on rewriting the original French; and as they were learning, they would make decisions that impacted sections they had already worked on. So they had to go back again and again.

When the texts were ready for English translation, they were sent to an external translator. He worked very closely with a member of the team (one of the writers, also a translator), to create the English version.

3. Ville de Montréal, “Charter of rights and responsibilities”

Montréal is very multicultural. The charter is all about how residents can live well together, be good neighbours to each other.

If I remember well, the city first created the English and French versions of the charter.

Then, to create the other versions (Arabic, Italian, etc.), the translation team would meet with cultural groups. They would discuss the values mentioned in the charter, see how they fit with people in that community, learn about similar values in their culture, etc. These conversations helped create a text that would make sense to people in that community.

It was a collaborative process.

(I must say, the charter isn’t exactly in plain language… But the efforts the team made to talk with the audience and find out what would make sense to them, that’s very much a “plain language” approach.)

5. Short conclusion: the writing process

Something you’ve probably noticed…

Representations of the writing process tend to be all neat and orderly: first this step, then this one, then this other one…

It’s a lot messier in real life! Instead of a straight line, the real visual would have a lot of back and forth, running in circles, zigzagging, waiting, jumping back… 😉

The “translation + adaptation” I mentioned would probably look like an offshoot from the main process. And it would probably link back to the writing process of the original text at some point, when changes made to the translation inspire changes in the original.

That real picture would be rather messy… but fascinating!

—Dominique Joseph
(translator, clear communication specialist, fan of good processes)
July 2014

Where does translation fit into plain language? An information-gathering post

Where does translation fit into the plain language process?

What struck me most when rebuilding Supply and Services Canada’s plain language guides (Plain Language: Clear and Simple and Pour un style clair et simple) was that the French guides aren’t simply the English guides, translated. Although both guides teach the same underlying principles—understanding your audience and the purpose of your document; planning and organizing your document before writing; achieving clarity at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels; implementing a design that supports readability; and user testing with your intended audience—the differences in content between these guides drove home that plain language is language specific.

“Well, obviously,” you might be thinking. Different languages have different grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, each rife with opportunities for ambiguity that have to be tackled individually. The French guides, for instance, address appropriate usage of the indefinite pronoun “on” in plain language, which isn’t a consideration in English. Studies have also shown a “language-specific rhetorical bias” when it comes to using (and by extension, tolerating) the passive voice.

What’s more, the audiences are likely to be vastly different. Even within Canada, French and English speakers have different cultural backgrounds, and those who have neither French nor English as their first language are more likely to learn English than French, meaning that publications in English have to be more sensitive to the needs of ESL speakers than those in French to FSL speakers. A document in plain French, if translated into English, may no longer be plain.

So, being a bit of a workflow nerd, I wondered where translation best fits into the plain language process. Translators have complained that translation is often an afterthought, not considered until the document in the source language is complete. In many cases, though, given that the clarity of the source text can determine the quality of the translation, working with a fully polished text makes sense. Yet, the inherent differences in audience would imply that, for documents that we know will be available in more than one language, developing separate texts in parallel, from the outset, would most effectively get the message across. This approach would be a nightmare for translation revisers and designers of bilingual documents, however, and it certainly isn’t the most budget-friendly option. Would the most efficient approach be to translate after plain language editing but before design, then do parallel testing sessions for the source and target languages?

If you or your organization translates plain language documents, tell me—what do you do? How well does your system work, and what would you change?

Now available: Pour un style clair et simple—Guide du formateur

Earlier this year I rebuilt Supply and Services Canada’s eminently useful but out-of-print plain language guides, including the two sixty-page booklets, Plain Language: Clear and Simple and Pour un style clair et simple, as well as the thorough, two-hundred-page Plain Language: Clear and Simple—Trainer’s Guide, which gives trainers the materials they need to run a two-day plain language workshop.

I’d wondered if a French trainer’s guide existed. (My online searches turned up nothing.) Plain language expert Dominique Joseph tracked it down and sent me a copy, which I’ve also rebuilt from scratch. Here is the PDF, free to download. I’ve also uploaded the guide to CreateSpace for anyone wanting to order a hard copy (and for discoverability).

To keep the complete set in one place, I’ve added these links to the original post where I made the guides available.

A million thanks  go to Dominique Joseph for finding this French guide, sending it to me, and carefully proofing the rebuilt file.

Beyond the plain language edit—Claire Foley & Tracy Torchetti (EAC conference 2014)

Those of us who work in plain language are intimately familiar with the basic techniques that help us produce clear communications, including using:

  • common words familiar to the intended reader,
  • a conversational style that speaks directly to the audience,
  • active voice whenever appropriate,
  • short sentences,
  • lists,
  • a positive tone, and
  • an effective design that maximizes readability.

But do these techniques go far enough? At the Editors’ Association of Canada conference, plain language experts Claire Foley and Tracy Torchetti raised some specific issues to keep in mind if you aim to make your writing truly plain.

Audience

Using plain language means writing for your audience—but how well do you know them? If you’re writing for Canadians, be aware that:

  • 42% of adult Canadians have low literacy skills
  • 17% of the Canadian population are immigrants
  • 32% of Canadians don’t have English as a first language

As Foley said, “If you’re writing for Canadians, you are writing for ESL speakers.” And not only is Canada’s immigration population growing—so is its aging population. Your audience is diverse, and your communications will need to accommodate their needs, including those of people with different abilities.

Some text may be translated into Braille or sent through text-to-speech software, said Torchetti, and if the text has been clearly written in plain language, it is more likely to be rendered correctly. Otherwise you may end up with verbal gobbledygook.

Language

Writing for your audience means that plain language pushes the boundary of what is acceptable to those who are wedded to grammar. You have to be flexible if you want to craft a message that is appealing and relevant to your readers. When choosing between words, use the more common one; common words aren’t necessarily the shortest, but they’re the most familiar to the reader.

Contractions

Contractions are generally fine—they’re friendly, conversational, and engaging. However, Foley noted that some contractions are easier than others for readers to understand.

Easier contractions include:

  • I’m
  • can’t
  • don’t
  • you’re
  • who’s
  • what’s
  • where’s

Harder contractions include:

  • could’ve
  • will’ve
  • shouldn’t
  • isn’t
  • aren’t
  • weren’t
  • doesn’t
  • didn’t

Verb tenses

Stick to common verb tenses, such as the simple present and simple past. Try not to use other tenses, like the present progressive, in your plain language writing.

The present tense can work well for both present and future situations (for example, “I work tomorrow”), so if possible, eliminate the “will” and use the present.

Whenever possible, use regular rather than irregular verbs in the past tense. If you’ve got a choice between “talked” and “spoke,” for example, opt for the regular “talked,” whose –ed form is a clear cue to all readers that you’re using the past tense.

Phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs, such as “give up,” “take over,” and “put off,” are idiomatic and aren’t well understood by well understood by audiences with limited English. Avoid these whenever possible.

Punctuation

Good punctuation matters to clear communication, said Torchetti, but use punctuation minimally.

“Any extra punctuation adds clutter to a page,” she said. You can eliminate a lot of that clutter and add clarity simply by avoiding abbreviations like “e.g.” “Besides, said Torchetti, “that’s an abbreviation of a Latin phrase, and Latin has no place in plain language. Period.”

Particularly fussy punctuation marks that you should avoid include:

  • the colon,
  • the semicolon,
  • the asterisk,
  • the ellipsis,
  • footnote symbols, and
  • parentheses.

Struggling readers don’t really understand the function of the colon, so try not to use it in running text. However, most readers now expect a colon to introduce a list, so, even if it’s not grammatically correct, you should include it.

“Banish the semicolon from plain language,” said Torchetti. “Semicolons are a good indication that you should be changing one sentence into two.”

Most people don’t read text in parentheses and, if they do, they can’t easily see its relationship with the rest of the sentence.

Formatting and presentation

“It’s not plain if you’ve just taken care of the text,” said Torchetti.

Struggling readers have trouble navigating a page, whether printed or online, and they can’t scan large chunks of text. Break up the text into shorter paragraphs, with plenty of white space on the page, and use meaningful titles, headings, and subheadings, which serve as signposts to guide readers. For those headings, though, use sentence case rather than title case, which can be hard to read.

Choose your fonts carefully: script fonts, for example, are hard to read, and older readers need at least a 14-point type size to read comfortably.

The layout should make the information easy to find and use. Visuals should make concepts easier to understand: illustrations that are metaphorical will confuse struggling readers, so make your images informative.

For online information, make it easy for people to navigate and go back. Avoid putting too much information on a page, and make links obvious. In the name of elegance, too many websites now make their links too hard to discern from the rest of text.

Foley and Torchetti recommend Access Ability: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design for tips on effective design for audiences with different abilities.

Readability

For a general audience in Canada, readability best practice is to aim for an average reading level of grade 8 for print and grade 6 to 8 for web, although you should adjust your reading level based on the subject matter and context.

Readability formulas, such as the Fry readability formula or the Flesch–Kincaide readability test, can be useful, but, Torchetti cautions, understand their limitations. They each measure only five to ten factors, when readability is based on about a hundred factors. How readability tests can be really useful is as tools to educate clients and to persuade them of what needs to be done to the text to make it clearer.

Plain Language: Clear and Simple

In 1991, in the heyday of the push for plain language in government, Supply and Services Canada produced a sixty-page plain language writing guide, in each official language, called Plain Language: Clear and Simple and Pour un style clair et simple. According to one of my colleagues, every federal employee at the time got a copy, and the guides were also available for sale to the public. Three years later, the same federal department published the companion volume Plain Language: Clear and Simple—Trainer’s Guide, which, in 220-odd pages, contains all of the materials a trainer might need to lead a two-day plain language course, including

  • text detailing the steps of (and reasons for) the plain language process,
  • before-and-after examples,
  • exercises,
  • transparencies,
  • a checklist,
  • handouts, and
  • references.

I found out about these resources when I was volunteering for the PLAIN 2013 conference in the fall and was able to dig through the archives of Plain Language Association International. “People still ask for them all the time,” Cheryl Stephens told me, “but they’re not easy to find.”

She wasn’t kidding. As of right now, on Amazon.ca, one “new” copy of the sixty-page English booklet is available for $94.36; used copies are going for $46.39. I can’t find the French booklet or the trainer’s guide on Amazon at all.

And it’s no wonder they’re so coveted. Despite their age, they are still among the best plain language writing guides that I have come across. The smaller booklets are succinct and easily digestible, and the trainer’s guide is detailed and persuasive. The references are out of date, of course, as is some of the design advice, but otherwise, they remain solid references and are certainly great starting points for anyone hoping to learn more about plain language.

The federal government tweaked Crown copyright in 2013, leaving each department to manage its own copyright, but seeing as Supply and Services Canada no longer exists, I’m going to assume Crown copyright still applies to these publications, meaning that I am allowed to make copies of them as long as I distribute them for free or on a cost-recovery basis.

Before I returned the PLAIN archives to Cheryl, I photographed the pages from all three volumes and have rebuilt them from scratch, replicating the originals as closely as possible, down to the teal-and-purple palette that was so inexplicably popular in the nineties. And here they are:

The PDFs are free to download. I also published them via CreateSpace in case anyone wanted a hard copy (the list prices are set to the lowest allowable and are for cost recovery only) but primarily for discoverability, because within a few weeks of this post, all three should come up in a search on the extended Amazon network. The two little booklets are in colour, which is why they’re a little pricier, but I chose to offer the trainer’s guide in black and white, because the only colour was in the “Tips for trainers” inserts and I didn’t think it was worth increasing the price for just those twenty pages. The PDF of the trainer’s guide has those supplementary pages in colour.

Notes

  1. If anyone from the Government of Canada would like to reclaim copyright over these publications, please get in touch. I’m not making any money off of them, of course, and I don’t mind relinquishing my rights over the files, but I would like them to be available.
  2. I don’t know if a French version of the trainer’s guide exists, but if someone has it and would be willing to lend it to me or scan it for me, I would be happy to rebuild it as well. (UPDATE: Dominique Joseph tracked down a copy of the Guide du formateur, and I’ve added the rebuilt file to the above list.)

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for providing the originals and Ruth Wilson for supplying a couple of pages that I was missing. Huge thanks also to my extraordinary volunteer proofreaders: Grace Yaginuma, who cast her eagle eyes over the English booklet and trainer’s guide, and Micheline Brodeur, who proofed the French booklet and supplied the translation for the descriptive copy on CreateSpace. Finally, a tip of the hat to whoever created these enduringly useful resources in the first place. We owe you a great debt.

UPDATE—July 21, 2014: A million thanks to Dominique Joseph for finding and sending me a copy of the Guide du formateur, proofreading the rebuilt document, and drafting the descriptive copy for CreateSpace.

Back to school: A self-indulgent personal post

This week I got an official letter of acceptance to the PhD program in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, where I’ll be studying knowledge translation. In particular, I’ll be looking at ways to apply plain language principles to mental health research to make it more accessible to patients, practitioners, advocacy groups, and policy makers. I’m thrilled by the prospect of applying my editorial skills and clear communication knowledge to increase health and scientific literacy.

Although I’m heading back to school, in no way will I be leaving publishing; I adore my career, and my plan (although plans may change, of course) is to come right back once I’ve completed the degree. In the meantime, I’ll be dialing down the amount of publishing work I take on to a small handful of projects a year so that I can focus on my research.

I’ll also be drastically cutting back on my volunteer commitments with organizations such as the Editors’ Association of Canada. Over the past two years I’ve been a member of EAC’s Certification Steering Committee, which oversees the national program that certifies editors who have demonstrated excellence in proofreading, copy editing, stylistic editing, or structural editing. This committee is made up of some of the smartest, funniest, and most dedicated people I know, and working with them on projects to promote and strengthen the certification program has been a huge privilege. Leaving this collegial, optimistic, and productive group in August will be bittersweet.

At the branch level, I’ve worked with Frances Peck for the past two seasons (and with Micheline Brodeur last year) on the EAC-BC Programs Committee to set topics and invite speakers for our monthly meetings. We managed to put together an impressive lineup of speakers on fascinating subjects from forensic linguistics and cartography to subcontracting and the evolving role of libraries. Our ideas have spilled over into next season, and whoever takes over on the committee next year will be able to hit the ground running.

I can’t emphasize enough that my experiences on these committees—not to mention the professional relationships and friendships I’ve forged—have been tremendous for professional development, and I urge anyone considering volunteering for EAC to seize the opportunity. I will still be an active EAC member, and I am still happy to volunteer for small jobs here and there or for one-off events, but I’ll no longer have the time for ongoing committee work. If there’s still demand after this year’s PubPro unconference, a peer-driven professional development event for publication production professionals, I would be more than willing to run it again. And I still hope to attend EAC meetings and conferences and write up what I’ve gleaned from the sessions on my blog (although once I’m off the Programs Committee, I may allow myself to miss the odd meeting).

Speaking of my blog, my intention is still to post regularly on editorial, indexing, publishing, and plain language topics, but you might start seeing a bit more of a knowledge translation, health literacy, or mental health bent to my writing. Realistically, though, I won’t have time to do any more book reviews once school starts up. I’d love to keep crapping out my dumb little cartoons, but I might not be able to keep up with my monthly schedule.

Finally, I’d love to keep teaching in SFU’s Writing and Communications program. Changes are afoot in how those courses are being offered, though, so I’m not sure if I’ll still have a role to play. If it turns out that I will, I’ll be sure to post news about upcoming courses.

I’d like to thank all of my friends, colleagues, and mentors who have given me encouragement and advice as I’ve plotted this next step, which I have wanted to take for a long time. I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by so many amazing, supportive people.