I think plain language is awesome. I’m glad the movement is gaining momentum and that there are enthusiastic advocates out there trying to make plain language the default. And I’m excited to be learning more about how to improve my own plain language skills.
But I’m not so excited about the current of language shaming that undercuts plain language advocacy.
I’ve seen language shaming at conferences, in classrooms and online. It comes from the use of error correction as a teaching tool, which is a common way to learn skills like editing and plain language. Workshops and social media accounts feature pictures of incoherent signs, poorly written instructions and rambling emails. We dissect those mistakes, and we discuss them, and we learn from them. And often we laugh at those mistakes, and we deride the people who made them.
There is usually anger behind advocacy, and it’s no different with the plain language movement. People are angry that they can’t understand vital documents. They’re angry that people lose out on insurance or healthcare because they misunderstood a form. They’re
October 13th is International Plain Language Day (IPLDay), a celebration of clear communication and the plain language movement. In Vancouver, we celebrated IPLDay a week early at Communication Convergence, a conference that brought together communicators from different fields for an afternoon of discussion. I’m fairly new to the concept of plain language, and throughout the afternoon I began to reflect on how it fits in with my role as a science communicator.
What is the plain language movement?
The plain language movement encourages writing that is clear and easy to understand. Plain language advocates argue that access to easy-to-understand information is a human right. Often, important communication is difficult to understand: think about medical reports, rental agreements or job contracts. We like to joke about legalese, but misunderstandings of legal or medical documents can have serious consequences. This TED Talk explains it best.
Many governments have passed laws that require government documents to be written in plain language. October 13th was chosen as IPLDay because it’s the day Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which states that all US government agencies must use
I don’t often leave a six-hour seminar with more energy than when I came in, but if it’s six hours of language stuff, I’m pumped. This past Saturday the BC branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada hosted a workshop called Eight Step Editing, delivered by veteran editor and writer Jim Taylor, who developed the program in the 1980s. Jim has taught this process literally for as long as I’ve been alive, and I soaked up all the expertise I could. Eight Step Editing provides a framework for the editing process, a systematic way to approach editing that begins with making the fewest changes to the author’s words and becomes progressively more in-depth. I won’t go into the eight steps (you can find a good summary here), but I will share with you what got me so excited.
In step 5, “Eliminate the Equations,” Jim proposes that sentences have energy, and that this energy depends on their verbs. Of course this makes sense, because verbs usually express some sort of