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.

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.

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, 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.


  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.)


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.

Katherine Barber’s PLAIN 2013 banquet talk

I was incredibly privileged to get to see Word Lady Katherine Barber‘s speech at the PLAIN 2013 banquet. Because it was a banquet, I wasn’t rigorously taking notes—and even if I had been, I know I couldn’t do justice to her humour (short of reproducing a full transcript). Despite the casual levity of her talk, though, some of her points are very much worth discussing, so here is an extremely brief recap.


“We ideally and naively believe that language is for communication,” said Barber. In fact, language has always been used to impress others or to make the speaker feel superior. In the sixteenth century, people used to borrow fancy words from Latin (Shall we ebulliate some water for tea?), and in the eighteenth century, they borrowed fancy words from French. A secondary function of language, beyond simple communication, is to create an in-group and an out-group (hence teen slang).

Geographical variance also creates an in-group and an out-group, whether consciously or unconsciously. Barber gave some examples of how the English  Canadians use might baffle our visitors. What must they think about our morals, for example, when they walk down the street and see a sign that says “Bachelor for rent”? Or when they go to buy a newspaper and see “Loonies only”?

Language varies even within Canada, of course: in Thunder Bay, a shag is a kind of party—a cross between a shower and a stag. And in Manitoba, people would understand that if you promise to bring dainties, you’ll be bringing assorted sweets rather than frilly underwear.

From our old fort cheddar to our midget basketball teams, we use Canadianisms all the time in our writing and speech without a second thought, but we should bear in mind that what might be plain to us may not at all be plain to outsiders.

Kath Straub—Is it really plain? A case for content testing (PLAIN 2013)

Kath Straub of showed attendees at PLAIN 2013 how important—and easy—user testing is for plain language projects.

She began with an example: the Donate My Data brochure was supposed to inform veterans about a program through which they could donate their health records to test health software. She and her team identified ten “must-know” facts that readers should glean from the brochure and hoped to hit a target of 80 percent recall. They tested the brochure using Mturk, a crowdsourced testing tool run by Amazon, and found that reader recall didn’t meet their expectations. Some of the key facts they wanted to emphasize weren’t clear enough, and, as a result, the brochure wasn’t as persuasive as they’d hoped.

This example highlights the importance of testing, said Straub. “Here we were, plain language people thinking we were good at what we do—yet we were surprised with the results.” In the age of content, she explained, there are no guides, and we have to stop blaming the victim. Usability experts and content experts have to come together to create effective documents and tools.

Fortunately, comprehension testing sounds harder than it is. There are three types:

1. “Simple” comprehension testing

Did the users get the key facts? To see if they did, the user testing team should

  • agree on the facts
  • decide which are the most important
  • create a question for each fact
  • agree on the answers

Pre-test your questions, and expect to revise them several times. Good questions are hard to write—test takers remember strategies for answering multiple choice questions from school (e.g., the longer, specific answer is the right one)—so offer participants an alternative to guessing (e.g., “The brochure didn’t say”).

Test multiple versions of your comprehension test to narrow down which version might work best for which audiences.

When reporting results, it’s important to note not only how many people got a question right but also what those who got it wrong chose as answers.

2. Confidence testing

Could users explain what they’ve just read to a family member of friend?

3. Persuasiveness testing

Users may understand the content, but will they change their behaviour accordingly? Understand their motivators, their concerns, and their barriers.


Straub has used Mturk for a lot of her user testing: participants get paid a small amount to answer an online survey. The advantages are that Mturk has a wide reach across the U.S., which translates to a lot of participants. The disadvantage is that you don’t have much control over your testing population. As such, your test should start with a filter—a comprehension test and “catch” questions (e.g., “Answer A even if you know that’s not the right answer”)—that can help narrow down your pool of testers who are genuinely reading the questions. Over time, you create a “panel” of people who return to your studies. “You get what you invest and what you pay for,” said Straub.

Each testing session takes about a week, including setup and analysis.

Using tools like Mturk, Straub reiterated, crowdsourced testing can be quick, inexpensive, and effective. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be robust. Most importantly, she said, you don’t know something is plain language to your target audience unless you’ve tested it in your target audience.

Neil James and Ginny Redish—Writing for the web and mobiles (PLAIN 2013)

Veteran plain language advocates Neil James and Ginny Redish shared some eye-opening statistics about web and mobile use at the PLAIN 2013 conference that may prompt some organizations to reprioritize how they deliver their content. In 2013, for example, there were 6.8 billion mobile phones in use—almost one for every person on the planet. Half of the users were using their mobiles to go online. In 2014, mobiles are expected to overtake PCs for Internet use. Surprisingly, however, 44% of Fortune 100 companies have no mobile site at all, and only 14% of consumers were happy their mobile experience. Mobile users are 67% more likely to purchase from a mobile-friendly site, and 79% will go elsewhere if the site is poor.

People don’t go to a website just to use the web, explained Redish. Every use of a website is to achieve a goal. When writing for the web, always consider

  • purpose: why is the content being created?
  • personas: who are the users?
  • conversations: what do users have to do to complete their task?

Always write to a persona, said Redish, and walk those personas through their conversations. Remember to repeat this exercise on mobile, too.

Consider the following areas when creating content:

  1. Audience
  2. Physical context
  3. Channels
  4. Navigation
  5. Page structure
  6. Design
  7. Expression

Words, noted the presenters, are only one element out of seven.

Some basic guidelines

Build everything for user needs

Again, think of who your users are and what they are trying to accomplish. Consider their characteristics when they use your site. Are they anxious? Relaxed? Aggressive? Reluctant? Keep those characteristics in mind when creating your content.

Consider the physical context

Mobiles are a different physical environment compared with a tablet or PC. The screens are smaller, and type and links on a typical website are too small to read comfortably. Maybe soon we’ll have sites with responsive design that change how content is wrapped depending on the device being used to read it, but for now,  creating a dedicated mobile version of a site may be the best way to ensure that all users have an optimal experience on your site regardless of the device they use.

Select the best channels

Smartphones, equipped with cameras, geolocators, accelerometers, and so on, are capable of a lot. We need to be creative and consider whether any of these functions could help us deliver content.

Simplify the navigation

Minimize the number of actions—clicks and swipes—that a user needs to do before they get to what they want. “People will tolerate scrolling if they’re confident they’ll get to what they want,” said James.

Prioritize the content on every page

Put the information users want at the top, and be aware that, for a given line length, a heading with more words will have smaller type, which can affect its perceived hierarchy.

Design for the small screen

Pay attention in particular to information in tables. Do users have to scroll to read the whole table? Do they need to see the whole table at once to get the information they need?

Cut every word you can

The amount of information you can put on a website might be seemingly infinite, but for mobile sites, it’s best to be as succinct as possible. Pare the content down to only what users would need.

Mark Hochhauser—How do our readers really think, understand, and decide—despite what they know? (PLAIN 2013)

Mark Hochhauser, who holds a PhD in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, is a readability consultant based in Minnesota. Writing, reading, judging, and deciding, he explained at his PLAIN 2013 plenary session, are neurobiological processes that take place in different parts of the brain. Plain language can benefit some of them, but not all.

What can affect reading comprehension?

Word knowledge is critical for good comprehension. You need to know 85–90 percent of words to understand a document; to fully understand, you need to know 98–99 percent. Hochhauser was quick to add, “Common understanding of legal words is not the same thing as legal understanding of legal words.”

Vocabulary does not correlate with language comprehension or verbal fluency in adults with low literacy. Poor readers tend to recognize individual words but have not made the shift to stringing them together into sentences.

“All readers are not the same,” said Hochhauser. Reading, comprehension, and cognition are affected by

  • the aging brain, learning difficulties, and disorders like ADD/ADHD
  • how reading comprehension is measured: True/false questions, for example, are not good tests of comprehension, and some reading tests use only a few hundred words.
  • health problems: Acute coronary syndrome, intensive care, chemotherapy, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, drug addiction, traumatic brain injury, and menopausal transition can all affect how well we think.

How do we make decisions?

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, noted a “law of least effort” in thinking and decision making. Hochhauser explained, “If there are several ways to achieve the same goal, readers will take the least demanding route.” We have two systems of thinking: logical and emotional. Decisions are emotional first, logical second. “We often feel a decision before we can verbalize it,” he said. Whereas logical decisions are slow, controlled, and require a lot of effort, emotional decisions are fast, automatic, and require little effort. Our brains can retain only so much information, said Hochhauser. Miller’s Law refers to 7 ± 2—the number of items we can retain in our short-term memory, but more recent research suggests we can retain only about 4 to 7, depending on age (peaking at 25–35).

When we make quick decisions, we rely on intuition, which Hochhauser defined as “knowledge without reasoning” and “knowledge without awareness.” We are influenced by heuristics—shortcuts to making decisions. “Affect heuristics” are tied to our emotional responses to previous experiences, and “effort heuristics” make us assign value to work based on the perceived effort that went into it. Our decisions are also strongly influenced by how information is framed: Would you prefer “75 percent lean” or “25 percent fat”?  “Ninety-one percent employment” or “9 percent unemployment”?

Hochhauser concluded with an anecdote about an amusing bit of legalese in a letter he received that read, “Please read and understand the enclosed document.” The problem is, of course, as Hochhauser put it, “You cannot compel understanding.”

Karen Schriver—Plain by design: Evidence-based plain language (PLAIN 2013)

We may be good at the how of plain language, but the why can be more elusive. To fill in that missing chunk of the puzzle, information design expert Karen Schriver has scoured the empirical research on writing and design published between 1980 and 2010. She gave the PLAIN 2013 audience an eye-opening overview of her extensive, cross-disciplinary review, debunking some long-held myths in some instances and reaffirming our practices in others.

Audiences, readers, and users

In the 1980s, we classified readers and users as experts versus novices, a distinction that continues to haunt the plain language community because some people assume that we “dumb down” content for lower-level readers. Later on we added a category of intermediate readers, but Schriver notes that we have to refine our audience models.

What we thought

A good reader is always a good reader.

What the research shows

Reading ability depends on a huge number of variables, including task, context, and motivation. Someone’s tech savvy, physical ability, and even assumptions, feelings, and beliefs can influence how well they read.


What we thought

Processing nominalizations (versus their equivalent verbs or adjectives) takes extra time.

What the research shows

It’s true, in general, that most nominalizations do “chew up working memory,” as Schriver described, because readers have to backtrack and reanalyze them. However, readers have little trouble when nominalizations appear in the subject position of a sentence and refer to an idea in the previous sentence.


What we thought

Conditionals (if, then; unless, then; when, then) break up text and help readers understand.

What the research shows

A sentence with several conditionals are hard for people to process, particularly if they appear at the start. Leave them till the end or, better yet, use a table.


What we thought

Lists help readers understand and remember, and we should use as many lists as possible.

What the research shows

Lists can be unhelpful if they’re not semantically grouped. If an entire document consists of lists, we can lose important hierarchical cues that tell us what content to prioritize.

Text density

What we thought

A dense text is hard to understand.

What the research shows

It’s true! But there’s a nuance: we’re used to thinking about verbal density, which turns readers off after they begin reading. Text that is dense visually can make people disengage before reading even begins.

Serif versus sans-serif

What we thought

For print materials, serif type is better than sans-serif. Sans-serif is better for on-screen reading.

What the research shows

When resolution is excellent, as it is on most screens and devices nowadays, serif and sans-serif are equally legible and easy to read. Factors that are more important to readability include line length, contrast, and leading.

Layout and design

What we thought

Layouts that people prefer are better.

What the research shows

We prefer what we’re used to, not necessarily what makes us perform better. This point highlights why user testing is so important.

Impressions and opinions

We thought

It takes sustained reading to get an impression of the content.

What the research shows

It takes only 50 millseconds for a reader to form an opinion, and that first impression tends to persist.


What we thought

Content is content, regardless of medium.

What the research shows

Reader engagement is mediated by the technologies used to display the content.

Teamwork in writing and design

What we thought

Writing and design are largely solitary pursuits.

What the research shows

Today, both are highly collaborative. We now have an emphasis on editing and revision rather than on creation.


Evidence-based plain language helps us understand the reasons behind our principles and practices, allowing us to go beyond intuition in improving our work and developing expertise. We can also offer up this body of research to support our arguments for plain language and convince clients that our work is important and effective. What Schriver would like to see (and what the plain language community clearly needs) is a repository for this invaluable research.