Category Archives: Being Strategic

Save time and avoid frustration during content collaborations

Here are some common workplace issues that are one focus for my technical editing students this week.

Content Collaboration #1

You’ve just started work on a document and are gathering information to include from several individuals who represent different departments at your organization. You get a response from three individuals.

  • Individual A suggests deleting an entire section of content.
  • Individual B sends you a report with information that will create an entirely new section of content.
  • Individual C gives you a thoroughly copyedited document, with punctuation, grammar, and other mechanical revisions.

Individual C has wasted time copyediting content that has been deleted. If you multiply this wasted time across the work of individuals throughout an entire organization, even a small one, you have identified a tremendous source of inefficiency.

Content Collaboration #2

You’ve been working on a document for months. It’s been reviewed by multiple individuals, representing various departments, and you are now seeking final approvals.

  • Individual D suggests deleting an entire section of content.
  • Individual E provides you with an entirely new section of content.
  • Individual F gives you a thoroughly copyedited document, with punctuation, grammar, and other mechanical revisions.

The actions of individuals D and E are the source of your frustration. They should have provided these changes in earlier reviews.

A 2018 industry study found that collaborating on workplace documents was one of American businesses most broken processes. To reduce inefficiency and frustration, you can adopt tools designed for content collaboration. But understanding what professional editors call “levels of edit” will help regardless of your tool. Read on for an explanation.

A Primer on Levels of Edit

I’m going to start with a little background, so skip ahead if that doesn’t interest you today.


Most of us recognize the origin of levels of edit as the result of a publication by two technical editors named Robert Van Buren and Mary Fran Buehler from the Jet Propulsion Lab under a NASA contract , which was published in 1980.

JPL Editorial Work TypesLevel 1 EditLevel 2 EditLevel 3 EditLevel 4 EditLevel 5 Edit
Copy ClarificationXXX
Mechanical StyleXX

Here’s how they differentiated between levels of edit.

In a Level 5 edit, the editor verifies that JPL policy has not been violated, routes the manuscript through the various production processes and performs a liaison function between the author and publications personnel… [T]he editor, performing a Level 3 edit, will be required to clarify the copy for the compositor and to indicate the format… And in a Level 1 edit, the full range of editorial capabilities is applied to produce a first-class publication.

Van Buren, R., & Buehler, M. F. (1980). The Levels of Edit, JPL Publication 80-1. Jet Propulsion Lab., California Inst. of Technology, Jan.

The JPL system is specific to an organization and a genre. Let me introduce a more generic and simpler system that categorizes editorial activities.

Basic Principles

First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about the types of content that are relevant to this post. I’m focused only on workplace or professional contexts. Some, but not all, of what I have to say is relevant in the context of book or periodical publishing.

Here’s a way of categorizing the possible levels of edit based on the professional editorial standards published by the Editors Association of Canada.

  • Structural editing is assessing and shaping material to improve its organization and content often communicated to an author in an email or meeting.
  • Stylistic editing is clarifying meaning, ensuring coherence and flow, and refining the language often marking up the author’s digital file, for instance, using tracked changes and inserting comments in Microsoft Word.
  • Copyediting is ensuring correctness, accuracy, consistency, and completeness, usually done in the same way as stylistic editing.
  • Proofreading is examining material after layout or in its final format to correct errors in textual and visual elements often marking up “special” files like a PDF produced from Adobe InDesign for a production professional.

The different levels of edit actually define the different types of professional editors.


How could applying the levels of edit increase efficiency and reduce frustration in the situations described at the top of this post?

When sending material, give people instructions like these:

Please respond by supplying or correcting information. You can email me or send me documents with information that is needed. You can also insert comments into the document file. Turn on tracked changes if you add information directly into the body of the document.

You may also suggest reorganizing content. Please do not focus on wording or mechanics or format at this stage. You’ll have the opportunity to help with this after the content and organization are finalized.

Levels of edit applied in Content Collaboration #1

To save time and frustration when collaborating with others during content production, make sure people know what level of edit you’re requesting. Be explicit. You may have to provide a couple of examples (e.g., a “do this” and “don’t do this”). What directions would you provide for Content Collaboration #2?

Ideally, you would get together with all of the stakeholders and agree to a review process that assigns the appropriate levels of edit to each collaborator. If you can’t make that happen, you can still use levels of edit to make your workplace collaborations less frustrating.

Sources for Learning More

Buehler, M. F. (1977). Controlled Flexibility in Technical Editing: The Levels-of-edit Concept at JPLTechnical Communication24(1), 1–4.

Buehler, M. F. (1988). The Levels of Edit as a Management ToolIPCC ’88 Conference Record ‘On the Edge: A Pacific Rim Conference on Professional Technical Communication’., doi: 10.1109/IPCC.1988.24000.

Grover, S.D. (2021). Levels of Edit. Grover’s English (blog site).

Grover, S.D. (2021). Types of Editing. Grover’s English (blog site).

Get clear about your purpose before you write for workplace readers

Pro workplace writers are strategic. Period.

They begin a document with a predetermined goal and a plan for achieving it. Bryan Garner, author of the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, makes the point when he says,

Many people begin writing before they know what they’re trying to accomplish. As a result, their readers don’t know where to focus their attention or what they’re supposed to do with the message.

You may think you have to write to know what you want to say. That’s fine. As long as you understand that sort of writing is just for you. It might count as a very rough draft. But it’s not for an audience. It’s expression. Not communication. The contrast between the two has occupied those interested in the arts as well as in communication for eons.

The downside to being a strategic writer, like being a strategic business leader, is a committment to spend time planning before you act and then holding yourself accountable while you do. With each email, proposal or report you create, you have to decide how important its effectiveness is to you and the organization you represent.

At this point, I have to remind you that no document can be fast, cheap, and good. When the cost/benefit of a document matters, you have to be strategic by planning. (See how intense planning a short document can be by reading about how much planning went into creating a mortgage disclosure form.) Getting clear about your purpose is a critical part of planning.

Purpose is explained in Chapter 1 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in a formal setting, you’ll find lots of exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you identify purposes for writing in different workplace situations. But here are some additional resources to help you learn more about this aspect of writing like a pro:

  • a sample document
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Provide me with feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this email created by me based on an actual student’s response to an assignment from a 1999 textbook titled, Scenarios for Technical Communication, by Stone & Kynell. I’ve adapted it specifically to help your think about purpose in workplace documents. A few details about the context of the document:

  • Writer: a project manager for a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s owner
  • Bottom line message: one project is over budget and behind schedule


Video Tutorial

The email and some other examples are included in the 8-minute video below. This is my second attempt at a PowToon video so I welcome comments about how well it works.

Related Readings

There are a handful of posts here at Pros Write that deal with purpose in workplace documents. Just search for “purpose” or “planning” in the field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (2015). Thinking and interacting like a leader: The TILL system for leadership communication. Chicago: Parlay Press.

Quinn et al. (1991). A competing values framework for analyzing presentational communication in management contexts. Journal of Business Communication28, pp. 213232.

Here’s a tool for calculating the costs of writing at work

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If you need to make business case for creating higher quality documents in your workplace, check out the cost calculators from Eclectic. You can calculate

  • the daily and annual costs of ineffective emails.
  • the cost of creating a specific document.
  • the annual cost for you to write documents.

It’s worth reminding you of two other resources for making business cases: examples collected by Clear Language @ Work and those included in Joseph Kimble’s book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please.

To better understand . . . Or to understand better?

Has anyone given you grief over splitting an infinitive in your writing? If so, they would claim “to better understand” is wrong because the adverb better appears between to and the verb understand. The “rule” to avoid splitting infinitives originated in the 18th century due to a faulty comparison of English with Latin. (For more on such misinformed “rules,” head over to Motivated Grammar.)

While I find it surprising, the choice to split or not does sometimes elicit controversy. If you don’t believe me, you can read about a recent tussle between a journalist at The Economist and a linguistGrammar Girl might be right when she advises “it takes boldness to split an infinitive.” But do a journalist and a linguist accurately represent workplace readers? (I’ve urged you to attend only to usage that matters as established by research rather than to any individual’s pet peeves. I’ve listed the most relevant studies again at the end of this post.)

Of the six major research studies on writing mechanics since 1981, split infinitives were included in exactly zero of them.  In the most recent study (“Mistakes are a fact of life: A national comparative study” by Lunsford & Lunsford), split infinitives were considered but purposefully excluded because they were so rare in the writing of freshmen composition students. In the most relevant study for our purposes (“Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors” by Leonard & Gilsdorf), split infinitives were not tested because they were not considered one of the 45 most potentially distracting language choices.

Linguistics Research Digest recently summarized  a 2013 study by Perales-Escudero on the use of split infinitives in the Journal of English Linguistics. Here’s what the summary said.

We might assume that split infinitives would most often be used in spoken language, due to its more informal and less rigid nature and Escudero-Perales [sic] did indeed find that some examples, such as to just + verb’, to really + verb and to actually + verb are much more common in spoken registers.  On the other hand, he also found that other examples, such as to effectively + verb and to better + verb, showed strong associations with written academic registers.  In fact, the split infinitive that was used with most frequency in the COCA [Corpus of American English] was to better understand and it was mainly used in the written academic register, which we would probably perceive as the most rigid with regards to language rules.  However, it seems that it is this particular register which has given rise to its own split infinitive forms, especially those made with to better and to effectively.

So the evidence I have says stop thinking about split infinitives. There are so many other things to learn about writing successfully in the workplace!

Further Reading

For those of you who want to see the evidence for yourself,  here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

What does that smiley face mean? And should you use it?

There’s been buzz about the use of emoticons like the smiley face 🙂 or wink 😉 in the workplace. A New York Times article in 2011. Huffington Post took on the topic in a 2011 article and again in this 2012 article. A post by Gemma Stoyle at Linguistics Research Digest spurred my thinking about what emoticons mean and when they’re appropriate.

Research by Eli Dresner and Susan C. Herring identified three “meanings” of emoticons.

First, an emoticon can indicate emotion. This is the prototypical use where the visual is mapped directly onto a facial expression.

  • I just got paid 😀  means the writer is feeling very happy about the message he or she just wrote.

Second, an emoticon can have a non-emotional meaning. In these cases, the emoticon represents a conventional facial expression.

  • She is so graceful 😉 means the writer is using a wink to indicate his or her intent to make a joke with the message written.

Third, an emoticon can have a non-emotional meaning that is not represented with a conventional facial expression.

  • The movie was stupid 🙂 means the writer is only asserting the message he or she has written not actually complaining.

Want satisfied workplace readers? Give them an efficient reading experience

Efficiency. One of the greatest challenges for amateur workplace writers, who have not yet wrapped their heads around the fact that their colleagues do not read like  teachers do. I’ve made the point many times that teachers are obligated to read their students’ documents thoughtfully. And that workplace readers actually read the same way writers do — by skimming and scanning for what they need. I just came across a nice explanation of how people read by Jessica Love at The American Scholar. It should help you understand why efficiency matters and what writers need to do to create efficient messages.

In very basic terms, reading involves our eyes hopping from one point in the text (whether on paper or on screen) to another in a less-than-smooth pattern as shown in the graphic above.

Reading a sentence, our eyes seem to glide across the page, stopping each long, fluid sweep only at the margin. They seem to glide, but in actuality they hop in a volatile way, landing here and here and sometimes here. Psychologists who study reading call these landings “fixations.” Each time we fixate, we are able to take in approximately four letters to the left of our fixation point and some 15 letters to the right. . .

This asymmetry would work differently with writing systems that are not ordered left to right like English.

When our eyes land on a point (fixate), we see a limited amount of text clearly. (The graphic mistakenly shows equal acuity left and right of the fixation point.)

Thus, with each fixation we glean information from about 20 letters. We can’t necessarily identify all 20 letters: the outermost are relegated to our fuzzy peripheral vision. We may learn only that one letter is capitalized or another contains a curve—information that will help us identify that letter on our next fixation but isn’t going to do the trick on this one. Generally, to decode what’s in front of us, we must fixate every eight letters.

Decoding begins quickly, within 60 milliseconds of landing. The shape of the letter string as a whole—not just its constituent letters—assists us in our endeavor, so odd fonts or cApiTAlizAtiOn patterns slow us down. But before we’ve finished, before we consciously know we’ve read the words fonts and capitalization and have added these to the other words swimming around most prominently in memory, we have already started to plan our next fixation.

The lesson here is that your typographic choices influence reading efficiency.  Typographer, Raff Herrmann, makes a convincing argument for the onion layer model of legibility. The graphic shows that choices of background color, letter spacing, word spacing, etc. all influence legibility. And that reading prose or copy text (blocks of words and sentences) is the core area of concern with legibility.

When our eyes move while reading, our mind actively predicts what came before and, especially, after the point we just left.

During a hop, known as a saccade, we are unable to perceive any letters at all. . . Given that fixations average 200 to 300 milliseconds, and saccades 20 to 30, we spend about 10 percent of our time blind to what we’re reading. But we have learned to “mask” the saccade, to fill in this brief period of blindness with perceptual information from before and after it. We have tricked ourselves into seeing a smooth flow of sentences when we’re really getting a choppy surge of words and half-words. Some quick math suggests that the absolute fastest any of us can read—and actually read each word—is 500 words per minute. This assumes no backtracking, though nearly 15 percent of our saccades are regressions. It also assumes no comprehension beyond word identification. In practice, most of us read about 250 words per minute.

Read more of Jessica’s post if you’re wondering about “speed” reading.

Skimming in a text formatted as words and sentences — what we might call “dense” prose — results in random skimming.

One might assume that given how smart we are and all the nifty tricks we’ve developed to mask saccades and get our perceptual spans to bulge to the right, we’d at least be decent skimmers. One would think we’d be able to skim somewhat selectively. If we want to skim Walden for survival tips, aren’t we able to do so? Unfortunately not. We’re okay at skimming texts for particular words, at treating “Self-Reliance” like a giant word-find puzzle, only if we know exactly what we’re looking for. We can’t get around having to read something to know what it says, and we have to know what it says to know if it is relevant. But because skimming is essentially sampling, we’re just as likely to skip over the relevant as the irrelevant.

But skimming becomes purposeful scanning when a text is formatted visually — with white space for paragraph breaks, headings with larger or different typefaces, colored boxes, etc. as shown with the graphic at left.

The only thing that prevents skimming from being an entirely random pursuit is that some information becomes legitimately available to us before we read: we know where something is on a page without knowing what it says. Therefore, because the first sentence of a paragraph often gives us clues about what will come next, we might safely skip the rest of a paragraph if the first sentence is about pedometers and we seek the ratio of sugar to water most attractive to hummingbirds. Unsurprisingly, this “topic sentence” method appears to be particularly helpful for skimming webpages, where graphics and bullet points corral the eyes wherever content providers or marketers see fit. I have strong, if anecdotal, evidence that this same technique rarely works with freshman comp papers.

Of course, Jessica ends by alluding to the fact that amateurs writing academic genres like essays often fail to craft the first sentence in a paragraph as an accurate prediction of the message in the remainder of that block of text.  Because I assume Jessica’s reading these texts as a teacher, she may be irritated by the inefficiency and may reduce the grade earned because of it, but she is still reading very differently from a client or boss because she is obligated to puzzle through the text in order to help the writer. Her student writers shouldn’t expect that kind of attention or dedication from their workplace readers.

My video tutorials include many techniques for creating an efficient reading experience, including the use of topic sentences to create paragraph unity.  But organizing content with simple formatting techniques such as headings and white space is arguably the easiest way for any writer to create more efficient reading experiences. (See the first post listed below.) With an appropriate heading, Jessica wouldn’t be completely dependent on a topic sentence to understand the writer’s purpose or point. That’s because formatting provides visual cues that help the reader scan for the information they need within legible prose.

Pros test their draft documents — with readers

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Because pro writers recognize their limitations, they adopt practices designed to overcome them. One of those practices is testing a draft before delivering the final document. That’s why I highlighted the practice within my post: What is plain language? (Part Four: Putting It All Together in a Process).

There are lots of document quality testing methods. While the source is “aging,” Karen Schriver’s 1989 summary of methods is the best overview I’ve seen. She provides the figure shown below, which displays methods on a continuum from text-focused to expert-focused to reader-focused.

Schriver concluded,

When practical considerations such as time and expense allow, reader-focused methods are preferable to text-focused and expert-judgment-focused methods because they shift the primary job of representing the text’s problems from the writer or expert to the reader. Thus, reader-focused methods help minimize the chances of failing to detect problems. In addition, reader-focused methods expand the scope of text problems that get noticed, shifting the evaluator’s attention to global problems, especially problems of visual and verbal omissions.

So reader-focused methods are the best tests of document quality. Although reader testing can be expensive, cost is no reason to dismiss it. Jakob Nielsen made the argument convincingly in Guerrilla HCI: Using Discount Usability Engineering to Penetrate the Intimidation Barrier. Reader testing can be a simple as asking your actual reader to review a draft.

A while back, I promised a short video tutorial on reader testing. It’s on my list of to-do items for this summer . . . In the meantime, you can check out usability testing from the Center for Plain Language or user testing from the Nielsen Norman Group.

Amateurs suffer from too much AND too little knowledge

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It’s a conundrum. Do amateurs struggle to write successfully in the workplace because they have too much or too little knowledge? The answer is “yes.” Here’s what I mean.

Amateurs suffer from too much knowledge about their message. In the workplace, it’s commonplace for writers to have more information than their readers. I mean . . . That’s why they are writing in the first place. (As I’ve said many times before, this situation is reversed in most student writing. And that creates a transition challenge when those former students enter the workforce.)

Psychologist and linguist, Steven Pinker talked about this when he spoke at Harvard’s regularly scheduled “Harvard Writers at Work Lecture Series” last fall. You can read about his talk in the Harvard Gazette. Here’s an excerpt:

Why is it so difficult to write well? Pinker described the primary culprit as “the curse of knowledge,” which he defined as “the failure to understand that other people don’t know what we know.” Pinker recommended a few methods to “exorcise” this curse, including “remember it as a handicap to overcome” and “show a draft [of your writing] to a representative reader” to see if it’s comprehensible. If it’s not, revise for clarity.

Good advice.

But amateurs also suffer from too little knowledge about the role of emotion — especially as it relates to their workplace readers — in communication. I’m talking about emotional intelligence (EI). Mayer & Salovey’s four branch model of EI involves the abilities to:

  1. accurately perceive emotions in oneself and others
  2. use emotions to facilitate thinking
  3. understand emotional meanings, and
  4. manage emotions

I believe these abilities are especially lacking in amateur workplace writers, who don’t often perceive how readers will respond to their message, which means they can’t use those predicted perceptions to guide their plans for crafting a written message.

I was surprised to locate little research in this area. One experimental study of students writing in English as a foreign language did find that explicit attention to developing emotional intelligence in the classroom resulted in greater language fluency and relevance (Pishghadam’s “Emotional and Verbal Intelligences in Language Learning” in the 2009 volume of Iranian Journal of Language Studies).

Sounds like an area that deserves some attention . . .

Email etiquette for students

Many college students misunderstand the level of formality appropriate in email to faculty and staff. The New York Times did an article on this topic way back in 2006. The situation hasn’t improved for me since then. If you teach and are frustrated by the email you receive from students, I’m making a plea to help them think about what their behavior communicates to others.

Share this video from the folks at Arizona State U’s Writing Center. You’ll be doing other instructors a favor. But most important — you’ll be helping amateurs learn they must adapt their writing if they want their future workplace colleagues to perceive them as professionals. Too many students continue to send email that signals immaturity when they enter the workforce. More on email at work tomorrow . . .

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What is plain language? (Part Four: Putting it all together in a process)

The first three parts of my series on defining plain language focused on the three aspects of the rhetorical triangle: (1) textual elements like style and organization, (2) reader outcomes like comprehension and usability, and (3) writer outcomes like organizational costs and benefits. To overcome the limitations of any one of those aspects when considered alone, several experts talk about plain language as the process by which successful workplace documents are created — a process in which all three aspects are integrated.  That’s my focus here in Part Four.

Minimally, creating a document requires drafting: putting words on paper (literally or figuratively). Sadly, amateurs operate as if this single step or activity = writing. To enhance the quality of documents and move amateurs toward expert status, writing teachers regularly add two additional steps to the process: intentional planning before you draft and revising after you have drafted. The wisest of these folks also promote some form of document testing in order to determine what and how to revise.

Let’s talk about the phases of the process shown in red using examples from the proposed mortgage loan estimate document created for the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) project called Know Before You Owe by Kleimann Communication Group. I mentioned their exemplary work in an earlier post.


Pro workplace writers work their way through heuristic questions about the rhetorical context, message content, and content organization before they draft a document. Last year, I wrote a series of posts about a letter soliciting sponsorships for an outdoor sign at The First Tee of Tuscaloosa:

I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in those pieces. So let me just highlight some examples of the planning process for the loan estimate document.

In general, written messages are preferred for complex content and for situations in which a record of message delivery is needed. In the case of the loan estimate, both conditions were met. The Dodd-Frank Act required lenders to disclose information about mortgage loans to their customers after they apply for a mortgage and shortly before they complete the process.  It also required combining the information from two separate forms.

Given the widespread interest in banking and financial practices, the CFPB judged that the high cost of creating a quality loan estimate document was worth it. One way they corroborated this interest was by holding a symposium with consumers and industry representatives in December of 2010.

The writers of the loan estimate knew their readers were the heterogeneous group of US consumers. They also knew some general things about that group of readers: (a) their ability to understand message content was low because the level of quantitative and financial literacy is low for around 50% of US adults and (b) their willingness to attend to and use the message content to make decisions was low because that is a characteristic of all US consumers. The team of writers had to develop both informative content (like examples and definitions) to address the audience’s inability to understand mortgage loan details and persuasive content (like evidence) to address the audience’s unwillingness to pay attention to and use those details.

Before they began drafting, they read relevant documents and research, talked to CFPB staff and consumers, and brainstormed. After they began testing drafts, the writers also met with small business owners about using the new loan estimate.


Testing a draft document is the phase of the workplace writing process that most distinguishes you as a pro. I haven’t written much about the types of document testing. My goal is not to be exhaustive here. Instead, let me share how the writers of the loan estimate tested their document.

First, they posted drafts of the documents on the Know Before You Owe website and collected 27,000 comments.

Second, they used parallel design tests by creating two significantly different designs for the loan estimate. They implemented those two designs in eight document versions based on four different loan details. In Round 1, they presented these document versions to seven English-speaking consumer participants, two Spanish-speaking consumer participants, and two mortgage lender participants in Baltimore. Using one-on-one interviews, they asked participants to read-and-think aloud and to answer comprehension questions; they also asked lenders to answer implementation questions.

Even when the benefit of a quality document doesn’t warrant the expensive testing done for the loan estimate, testing is still possible — and warranted. Editorial or expert review is certainly less costly. But even reader testing can be done on a shoestring budget. To learn more about testing documents, you can begin with the guidelines on usability testing from the federal government’s plain language site.


For the loan estimate, testing suggested numerous revisions to the textual elements in both designs. Among the most serious issues identified from Round 1 testing, the writers learned (a) consumer participants needed more clarity around the monthly loan payment and the total monthly payment; and (b) they needed to address how the design could encourage consumers to read the Cautions at the same time as they read the Loan Terms. So writers revised a number of textual elements in both designs. A few specifics for Design 1:

  • To make the loan amount more prominent, they added the heading Loan Amount.
  • To simplify cognitive processing and keep all cautions together, they combined the content of Key Loan Terms and Cautions.
  • To draw attention to cautions, they added more emphasis to this word in headings with shading and all caps.

Testing & Revising (Again)

The writers used an iterative design process. That means they tested the revised versions of the loan estimate in Round 2 in Los Angeles. And then revised the content, organization, and style some more. And tested again in Round 3 in Chicago. And revised more. In all, there were ten rounds of testing in cities across the US followed by revisions.

So . . .  What is plain language?

After four rather lengthy posts, here — with a drumroll — is how I understand the concept of a plain language document.

  1. It can be described as a set of text elements, including content (e.g., examples), organization (e.g., headings), style (e.g., verb voice), and mechanics (e.g., punctuation).
  2. The outcome of delivering the document is that it achieves the writer’s purpose, while minimizing costs and maximizing benefits for the writer’s organization.
  3. Other outcomes of delivering the document are target reader interest, comprehension, and ability to use the writer’s message.
  4. The only way to produce a plain language document (one that achieves #2 and #3) is to use a process for choosing text elements that incorporates planning, testing, and revising.

And, finally, describing plain language with fewer than all four of the items above is like describing only a portion of the elephant.

Beware of those who claim plain language is simpler than this. That would include those who make promises based on software tools or platitudes. And pay attention to those who include all four items. (See, for instance, the plain language checklist from the Center for Plain Language.)

No wonder becoming a pro who can produce plain language takes so much time and effort! But that’s what makes a pro so valuable.