Plain Language: A Division of Labor

Definitions of Plain Language on PlainLanguage.gov include those by legal writer Bryan Garner, scholar Robert Eagleson, software creator Nick Wright, technical communicator Beth Mazur, and essayist George Orwell. Such diversity illustrates the difficulty we have implementing plain language today. How should plain language practitioners define plain language and establish guidelines for its implementation with such a variety of practices and implications before us?

Books Beyond Words

Plain language in the health field can sometimes operate at very low levels of literacy.

One useful distinction would be between plain language and literacy. Books Beyond Words is one example of the low-level literacy work being done in the health field.

Literacy work has a longer history than plain language. And plain language practitioners can benefit from their counterparts in that world, particularly when it comes to visual design: the use and placement of headings and subheadings as well as bullet points and numbered lists. Plain language practitioners have much to learn from those working in the field of literacy. But we should not confuse the two.

By yoking plain language with literacy, we’re doing a disservice both to our practitioners and to our readers. Audiences who do not speak English or who have low literacy levels will not benefit from a discussion about average sentence length or the use of reading scales, conversations that plain language practitioners need to have.

Second, we talk about plain language as if it were one body of practice when there are four distinct industries in which plain language is being implemented. Each is implementing plain language for a different reason and in a different way. So it would perhaps be more useful to talk about plain language within each subset rather than as a unified body of practice.

The four areas I’m aware of include the following:

  • government
  • health
  • law
  • consumer protection (specifically finance)

(If you’re working in another area of plain language, please share it here. One industry is sadly underrepresented – academia. But that’s the subject of another post.)

The government touches such a spectrum of audiences that it would be impossible to establish a single set of guidelines for it as a whole. Instead, the government’s plain language website has wisely decided to offer broad guidelines, giving departments the freedom to establish their own style sheets. The Securities and Exchange Commission has a handbook I find useful. Usability.gov, maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services, has a Writing for the Web page with some exceptional content.

Why?

No matter what field we’re practicing in, keeping our purpose front and center makes us better practitioners.

I would also suggest that plain language experts in any industry keep the reason for its implementation at the fore of their research. In a democratic nation, the people have a right to a transparent decision-making and executive process. We should be able to understand what the government is doing and why.

That doesn’t mean that every government publication should be written at a 3rd grade level. The biologists I work with are publishing their research in scientific journals. As they strive to meet the mandate for plain language, audience and purpose are top of mind. Their audience is other biologists. Their purpose is to make the research reproducible and to give it predictive value. With these goals, we work together to make the language as transparent as possible.

Those guidelines are obviously very different than plain language in a health community, even when that health community is a government agency such as the Center for Disease Control or the Department of Health and Human Resources. As we’ve already discussed, much plain language work in the field of health is actually literacy work.

There’s a similar phenomenon in finance, except in that case the word literacy means something different. The financial audience can usually read and write, but the terms used in financial contracts are foreign to them –  another reason we should separate plain language into its various disciplines.

JusticePlain language for lawyers and consumers is more complicated. In both areas, the language must convey terms and provisions that will be strictly interpreted and enforced within a court of law. Such writing combines the specificity of the technical writer with the broad audience range of the health practitioner.

Again, if we look at the reason why we’re applying plain language principles to these disciplines, we’re better able to discover answers that are relevant to the field. In law, the goal is (or should be) to protect the parties, to allow justice to weigh the rights and wrongs of any situation, and to prevent the unscrupulous from escaping their misdeeds. So we want the law to be interpreted similarly by any reasonable person.

The goal is the same for consumer protection, but here we’re faced with a problem of authorship. The author is trying to sell goods or services, so they want the terms to be appealing. The audience needs to understand their responsibilities as well as their remedies should the seller fail to comply.

Readers are at a disadvantage. They have less money. They have less access to the legal system. And they have less knowledge of both business and law. So the responsibility resides with the business who writes the contract. But that responsibility conflicts with what the business, or author, perceives to be its own best interest. We have yet as a society to determine how we will hold those businesses accountable.

Our greatest advocate has been Elizabeth Warren. I applaud the work she has done and continues doing to hold banks, credit card companies, and other businesses accountable for writing documents that clearly state the terms of their contracts.

To summarize, I am an advocate of plain language. Written communication is one way that civilized cultures distinguish themselves from barbarians. For two human beings to speak to one another across great time and great distance so that one understands the other clearly – that is power. We should wield it wisely.

I believe that plain language practitioners, both writers and trainers, can reach our audiences more effectively if we stop treating plain language as a single entity. It’s time to divide plain language so we can conquer the field.

First, we need to recognize the distinction between plain language and literacy.

Second, we should acknowledge the different industries in which plain language plays a part.

Third, within each industry we should outline the purpose for and the audience using the plain language we design.

Only then can we establish guidelines that are practical and useful.

If you have an interest in plain language, please leave your comments here. And for more writing tips, subscribe to my blog  and follow me Twitter.

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