Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Meeting the Plain English Industry


Being a proofreader, I am naturally interested in functions, events and seminars that are connected with writing, editing and publishing. So when Write Ltd offered an evening on ‘The Challenges of Editing in Plain Language’ at Baldwins Centre, Wellington, on 2 October I decided to attend, although I was not quite sure what to expect from a panel on editing in plain language.

I soon found out that it was all about the challenges and pitfalls of writing in plain English. Plain, simple English that is easy to read and easy to understand. And in a world where people are increasingly busy and want documents that are user-friendly and easy to understand, plain English is vital. But there are so many reasons why documents are not in plain English: gobbledygook, specialist language, poor language skills, English as second language, and poor structural skills to name but a few. And that is why Write and other services and specialists in plain English are flourishing.

Now, you would expect plain English to be straightforward and go without saying. But I soon found out from our panel of five speakers that editing documents to read in plain English was not that easy. Each speaker had only five minutes to speak, so they used their five minutes to speak on one particular difficulty in the plain English industry.

Troubles in Wonderland Presentation

First speaker was James Burgess of Write itself. James told there can be a huge gulf of differences between what the plain English specialists will advise and what the client wants, expects or understands. Fortunately most of these gaps can be bridged with effective conciliatory and communication skills. Still, you never know what to expect with a new plain English language project; it can surprise you and lead you on tangents you didn’t expect.

Next was an editor from Statistics New Zealand and a representative of Plain English Language Champions. The plain English challenge here is to transform statistics into layman’s terms. The problem is that stasticians do not know plain English; they use mathematical language. Bridging the gulf between these two languages has led to the rise of the Plain English Language Champions, checklists, brochures and guides to plain English, and plain English courses.

Eloise Oruvwuje of Careers NZ then told us of her ‘Troubles in Wonderland’. The challenges to plain English here were organisational ones: problems with your team, problems with other teams, and problems with other organisations that are not on the same level with you, even people who do not use English the way you do. For example, Eloise told us about a complaint from a government official that was caused by the gulf between plain English and politicians who do not use plain English but political gobbledygook. It was yet another challenge to plain English – some people, organisations and sectors simply do not use or think in plain English.

Need Structure Presentation

Fourth was Plain English Award winner Maryland Spencer. The plain English problem she addresses is simple: structure. Too many documents are unreadable because they have no structure, no headings, no bullet points or any of the separators that makes them clear and easy to follow, or they have too much information. In today’s climate of busy corporate people and website information, a document that tells you what you need to know in one reading is essential. Maryland’s powerpoint showed us how simple headings, chunking of themes and cutting out unnecessary or repetitive words can make all the difference in plain English.

Finally we had Ngaire Dixon, an editor from Wavelength Ltd. Ngaire’s reasons for plain English were simple – her company writes educational programmes. Fortunately Wavelength does not encounter many problems with plain English, so I think her plain English language challenge is writing educational programmes that the users can understand.

Then it was the question period, followed by a return to drinks, nibbles and chatting before saying our farewells and returning home. I was left to think that the reasons for plain English and services like Write were obvious, simple and straightforward – but getting documents to read in plain English was not. All the same, somebody will say ‘speak English, will you!’ if you’re not talking in plain English. And that is why the plain English industry is there for all our government, corporate, education and publishing sectors.