Plain language requires attention to the 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.

testing

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.

Planning

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. mortgage disclosure symposium

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. mortgage disclosure planning

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

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.know before you owe

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.

Revising

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)mortgage disclosure think-aloud

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.

Plain language requires attention to the audience

In Part One of my attempt to explain how I understand plain language, I focused on the elements of a text that must be managed to create a plain language document. Anyone who has known me for long, however, could have predicted that I would talk about the rhetorical context of a high quality document in Part Two.  Here come my two cents on understanding plain language as an outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text.

Allow me to give a little background first. Following Aristotle, I like to use the rhetorical triangle.

  • rhetorical triangle preziThe corner with text refers to the elements of content, organization, style, and mechanics that appear in writing and make up the document itself.
  • The corner with purpose refers to the goal or intent of the writer of the document
  • The corner with audience refers to the recipients of the document.

As I remind my students constantly, all three aspects of the rhetorical context must be considered in order to make judgments about communication quality. In other words, a document is successful only when it fulfills the writer’s purpose for the document’s readers. There’s no such thing as a successful document considered in isolation. Researchers interested in workplace document quality have recognized the limitations of text-focused definitions since at least 1989, when Karen Schriver published Evaluating text quality: The continuum from text-focused to reader-focused methods. (If you want to continue exploring research in this area, start with Dutch researchers like Leo Lentz, Henk Pander Maat, or Michael Steehouder.)

I used the revised email announcement shown below in Part One on defining plain language. And I claimed it was a move toward plain language compared with the original version.

However, the text is likely to fail for any of the following readers:

  • One who is not fluent in English.
  • One with visual impairment.
  • One who doesn’t care about pension plans.

Not surprisingly then, one way to define plain language is to focus on the effect or outcome a text has on its readers — rather than on the text itself.  As PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) states, “Plain language is language understood by its audience.” And some folks prefer not to use the term “plain language” at all because of it implies the focus is on the language or text rather than on the reader.

So what are the desired outcomes of a plain language document on its audience? I suppose the most often mentioned is comprehension. It follows that a common prescription from those interested in better workplace writing is to address an audience as if they have less education than the writer or less expertise in the document topic.  Sometimes this is explained by referring to reading levels. In a 2004 report, William DuBay recommended writing to an general audience at the 7th grade level and lowering this to the 5th grade level when communicating about health, medicine, or safety.

Similarly, in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook, Warren Buffett disclosed

When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.

By the way, that handbook is a terrific, concise guide for implementing plain language within the workplace.

While comprehension may be the king of audience outcomes, it is not the only desirable one. First off, the purpose of some documents requires more than understanding. This is true of any document that includes instructions. In my video tutorial based on Chapter 2: Analyzing Audience of Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I explain that the rhetorical context determines whether writers must address audience ability to understand a message or audience willingness to accept a message — or both. Audience outcomes related to willingness include:

  • usability: whether the audience can use the document to perform a task accurately
  • efficiency: whether the audience can get content quickly and easily
  • credibility: whether the audience believes the content of the document
  • selection: whether the audience selects the document to read

The bottom line: I understand plain language as the outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text, and the outcome includes but is not limited to comprehension. You may have noticed that I have said next to nothing about the third point of the rhetorical triangle. That means you can expect Part Three to address document writers and their purposes for writing.

Plain language requires attention to the text

To celebrate International Plain Language Day, I’m republishing a four-part series in which I defined “plain language” a couple of years ago. Part three was accidentally published last night. [sigh] Here’s part one.

Perhaps the most obvious way to define plain language is to focus on the words a writer chooses. For instance, a common proscription from those interested in better workplace writing is for writers to avoid jargon. Jargon is a word with a highly specialized or technical meaning. Like 401(k), an investment plan established by employers to which eligible employees may make salary contributions on a pre- or post-tax basis. (Read more on investopedia.) There are other aspects of style that might be implicated in plain language as described in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part IV of Revising Professional Writing (RPW):

But style alone cannot explain why the email announcement about employees’ pension plan I’ve included below fails as a plain language document.

Software tools can identify many aspects of style that might be revised to achieve more plain language in a document. However, revising to achieve more conciseness in the first sentence and to eliminate unneeded passive verb voice in the second sentence won’t be enough to convert the email announcement into plain language.  (I don’t think the original includes any jargon.)

Other textual elements like organization have to be considered in creating plain language documents.  For many documents, the bottom line message may be presented in effective style but be placed in the middle or at the end of the document, which means it’s buried. I’m not going to categorize any document with a buried bottom line as achieving plain language no matter how plain the style is!  The areas of organization that contribute most to the lack of plain language in the original email announcement are paragraph unity and format. The initial paragraph is quite long and is not tightly constrained to a single, manageable topic identified with a topic sentence at the beginning. In addition, the format of that initial paragraph in one big block of text does nothing to make it easy for readers to get the document’s message.

All of the aspects of organization that might be implicated in plain language appear in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part III of RPW:

While I haven’t reviewed StyleWriter yet, in general, editing software tools are more effective at identifying style issues (which operate at the word- and sentence-level of text) than organization problems (which operate beyond the level of individual sentences).

Consider the revised email announcement, which exemplifies a move toward plain language.

One of the primary differences between this revised and the original versions of the document relate to content development, specifically to the use of a table to display the  example of how the new pension plan works. All of the aspects of content development that might be implicated in plain language appear in my three video tutorials based on chapters in Part II of RPW:

I could continue by talking about the influence of mechanics (e.g., Part V of RPW on punctuation, pronoun reference, etc.) on how plain the meaning of a document is. But the point is that a pro manages all elements of text, including organization and content, to achieve plain language — not just style. Many experts on plain language understand it as the result of all elements of the text: Joseph Kimble does so in his most recent book; Cheryl Stephens does on her website; and Beth Mazur did in her STC article more than a decade ago. Beware of those who understand plain language as writing style. They make pronouncements based on only a fraction of the elephant!

Remember. This is only part one of my definition. More on the importance of the rhetorical context beyond the text when defining plain language . . .

Plain language requires attention to the writer’s organization

[This post should have appeared on October 13 to acknowledge International Plain Language Day.  More important, it should have appeared AFTER parts one and two.]

In the first two posts defining what I mean by “plain language,” I have focused on two points of the rhetorical triangle: textual elements like style and organization (Part One) and reader outcomes like comprehension and usability (Part Two). Now it’s time to tackle the third, the writer’s purpose.

rhetorical triangle preziThis is arguably the aspect of rhetorical context that gets the least attention when it comes to workplace documents. This is logical. For academic writing — you know, the kind of writing done throughout nearly all formal education — the writer has often been promoted as the most important aspect of the rhetorical context.  Take, for instance, the concept of “writing to discover” from Peter Elbow. (Here’s a 2007 interview which will help you understand this perspective on writing.) I’ve written several posts about the unhappy consequences of students learning to write only for teachers (see this early one or this more recent one or my About page). One of the things teachers have in common as an audience of student documents is that they must support this writer-centered view. At least to some extent. I mean the student writer is the focus of a teacher’s professional responsibility.

The emphasis on the audience in workplace writing is critical for helping workplace amateurs focus on the rest of the rhetorical context and become pros. However, as a representative of his or her organization, the workplace writer and his or her purpose for a document is also critical.  Unlike academic writers, whose writing is self-centered, workplace writers must focus on both their audience and the organization they represent.

In my video-tutorial on purpose based on Chapter 1 in Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I categorize a professional’s reasons for writing based on the intended effect on the audience:

  • informing emphasizes tasks and the status quo
  • directing emphasizes tasks and action
  • consulting emphasizes relationships and action
  • valuing emphasizes relationships and the status quo

While these do a good job of describing the immediate aims of the writer’s document, they don’t adequately connect to the overarching organizational goals to which the document contributes.  I’m talking about THE bottom line — money. Whether for-profit or not, every successful organization seeks to maximize revenue and minimize costs. When workplace writers create documents, they affect their organization’s bottom line.

Not long ago, I wrote about selling plain language to your manager. (In fact, a comment on that post is why I started this series on defining plain language.) I argued that a business case for creating quality documents might be the key. Making a business case includes analysis of costs, including risks, and benefits.  Let’s consider a simple, hypothetical business case for creating the email announcement to employees about changes in pension plan contributions — the one referred to in Part One and Part Two. In the table below, I’ve calculated costs for creating both a lower quality and higher quality announcement based on the salary of those involved.

 

Low Quality Document

High Quality Document

1.       Reading time (100 employees’ 50K salary)

$4,200

(10 minutes)

$2,100

(5 minutes)

2.       Writing time (HR writer’s 50K salary)

$12

(30 minutes)

$50

(120 minutes)

3.       Reviewing time before delivery (HR manager salary 90K) (5 employees’ 50K salary)

$0

(0 minutes)

$0

(0 minutes)

$22

(30 minutes)

$60

(30 minutes)

4.       Answering questions after delivery (HR employees’ 50K salary)

$600

(1440 minutes)

$200

(480 minutes)

TOTAL COST

$4,812

$2,432

The lower quality announcement costs less before delivery but results in higher overall cost to the organization due to the greater time required for employees to read the email and for HR employees to answer questions about the email content after delivery. Note that I haven’t tried to calculate benefits related to things like employee satisfaction or compliance with federal requirements. Risk assessment is not my specialty. Nevertheless, those benefits could be converted into dollars for the writer’s organization.

My point with this simple example is that plain language is not only about the text and the audience. Or even the about the writer’s purpose for writing. It’s also about the organization’s goals. While I’ve talked about all three corners of the rhetorical context, there’s one more post coming on understanding plain language. I need to deal with the process involved in creating plain language documents.

Read. Then write.

One of the most important things any teacher or manager can do to help novices become pro writers is to discuss sample messages with them. Reading thoughtfully precedes writing successfully! The key to thoughtful reading is discussing the sample message in sufficient, relevant detail and connecting those details to future messages the writer will create.**

Here are the guidelines I’ve provided to those introducing novices to writing for workplace readers. They are more exhaustive than exemplary because I created them for an academic context. But you can adapt them for a discussion with any writer who is a novice with the message genre of interest. [Note: This is an updated post from a few years back.]

Goals

  • To read a workplace message critically (i.e., assess and explain its quality)
  • To practice analyzing the rhetorical context of workplace messages (i.e., relationship among message, writer, and audience)
  • To apply concepts from the workbook, Revising Professional Writing, and connect them to the grading rubrics we use

These goals are important to student success because the vast majority have little experience with workplace messages—especially with assessing their quality as a function of the rhetorical context.

For many decades now, nearly all language education in the US (from preschool through undergraduate) has focused on one text genre for reading (literature) and one text genre for writing (academic essays). The result is generations of adults who think reading is a puzzle-solving activity because the meaning is supposed to be “hidden,” while writing is supposed to impress an already knowledgeable audience (e.g., teachers). Adults, including our students, do not understand they have studied limited genres and that those genres didn’t teach them most of what they need to know about information development, organization, and style/tone for workplace messages.

Choosing a Sample Message

You must choose a message representing the genre of interest (i.e., sensitive letter, proposal, email announcement, etc.).  Students learn from discussion of any quality level of message samples (i.e., not mailable, mailable, or proud to mail). However, you must clearly identify the quality level of the message sample either before or after the activity.

Introducing the Activity

  1. Begin by announcing the discussion activity and the amount of time you have allotted for it. (It can be done in as little as 10 minutes.)
  2. Give directions for completing the activity. (This will be more important early in the semester or if you decide to use small group discussions.)
  3. Provide visuals as needed (the sample message, the relevant grading rubric, etc.) either as hard copy or as projections on the screen.

Asking the Right Questions (with video suggestions)

About the rhetorical context (Purpose; Audience):

  • Who is the writer? What is his/her organizational role?
  • What’s the bottom-line message?
  • Which of the four purposes (informing, directing, consulting, valuing) does the writer have for creating this message?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the writer (power difference, value difference, social distance)?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the message (knowledge level, sensitivity)?

About the effectiveness of the content of the message for this rhetorical context (Informative Prose; Persuasive Prose; Graphics):

  • Does the writer provide enough and the right kind of information (defining, describing, giving examples, comparing/contrasting, classifying, using outside sources)?
  • Does the writer provide evidence and interpretation for any claims?
  • Does the writer use graphics to enhance comprehension, usability, or feelings?
  • Does the writer use graphics that meet the audience’s need (to see surface detail = photograph; to see percentages of a whole = pie chart; to see steps in a process = flow chart, etc.)?
  • Do graphics use accurate and consistent proportions? Do they include labels, titles, and captions? Does the writer integrate the graphic into the text?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization of content for this rhetorical context (Bottom Line; Paragraph Unity; Cohesion; Transitions):

  • Where is the bottom-line? Is this placement effective for the audience? Why?
  • What order is the content presented in? Is that order effective for the audience?
  • Do paragraphs have effective topic sentences? Are all sentences in each paragraph clearly related? Are paragraphs relatively short?
  • Do sentences or sections of the message have explicit transitions that guide the audience through the writer’s logic?
  • Does the writer organize to enhance efficiency for reading?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the style for this rhetorical context (Conciseness; Voice; Parallelism; Word Choice; Tone):

  • Is the style appropriately concise?
  • Does the writer present parallel items in parallel form?
  • Is the style appropriately active or passive?
  • Is the word choice appropriate?
  • Is the level of formality appropriate?
  • Does the writer’s style achieve reader-orientation?
  • Is the level of directness appropriate?
  • Are presuppositions used only when the audience will agree with the writer?

About the visual impression of the message for this rhetorical context (Format):

  • Is the page layout (margins & other white space, line spacing, justification, color, etc.) effective?
  • Is typography (typeface, size, position, boldface, etc.) used consistently and for emphasis?
  • Are any groups of items presented in a list with characters or numbers to enumerate them?
  • Does the writer create a visual text that enhances efficiency for reading?

About the mechanics of the message for this rhetorical context (Punctuation; Agreement):

  • Is a written message effective and efficient or should the writer choose another medium?
  • Are there misspellings or typos that will distract the reader from the content of the message?
  • Are there sentence fragments, comma splices, or any other punctuation issues that are likely to distract the reader?
  • Are there any subject-verb disagreement issues that will be distracting?

Leading Discussion

When leading discussion, prompt students to provide answers to these questions and to link those answers to specific places in the sample message. This will not come naturally to most undergraduate students. For example, you may not be successful in getting good discussion about style by asking something general like “How effective is the style in this message?” Instead, students are likely to need more specific questions, such as “Do you think the style is concise?” Or even “Is the style of the first paragraph concise? Give me a specific example.” Obviously, you can lead the discussion most effectively when you have already analyzed the message on your own before the class meeting.

Providing the Take-away

  1. Summarize the main points, especially as the discussion applies to future writing assignments. (You can ask different groups to keep a list of main points for a specific area during the discussion.)
  2. Clearly tie these main points to the overall quality level of the message sample.

Footnote

** My approach could be classified as genre-based writing pedagogy.  Ken Hyland used the following table to show that even elementary students can be taught to read — and then write — a range of genres. I dream of such a world–where students learn to communicate with an audience in writing. And where the five-paragraph essay is just a blurred memory. Sigh . . .

Related Research

Hyland, K. (2007). Genre pedagogy: Language, literacy and L2 writing instruction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16, pp. 148-63.

Check out the 4th Edition of Revising Professional Writing

rpw4_coverThe 4th edition of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences is now available It’s an affordable workbook at $39.95 USD, with over 400 revision and editing problems. Instructors get an answer key plus supplements here on Pros Write (e.g., sample documents, videos, etc.) supporting the principles in the book.

Each of the 21 chapters explains research-backed principles for revising or editing a single element (e.g., informative graphics, bottom line placement, conciseness, pronoun reference, etc.). The succinct explanatory text is followed by revision and editing problems that require increasing levels of expertise within each chapter.

Details:

  • Over 400 revision and editing problems covering rhetorical context, development, organization, style and tone, and mechanics.
  • Problems range from sentences and paragraphs to 11 full-length texts.
  • Examples from a variety of texts: memos, letters, résumés, proposals, instructions, definitions, and reports.
  • All revising and editing problems drawn from the actual writing of college students.
  • Self-contained chapters, allowing flexible use with other textbooks.
  • ISBN 978-0-9767180-6-2

Parlay Press provides exam copies:

Email: mail(at)parlaypress(dot)com
Toll-free fax: 888.301.3116

Your feedback is valued!

Which federal agencies made the grade?

The Center for Plain Language just released their 2014 Federal Plain Language Report Card. Highest grades went to Homeland Security, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Social Security Administration.

Print

In their white paper, they note that the quality of writing within the US federal government is improving.

• 16 out of 22 departments improved over last year’s grades.

• In 2014, compliance with the Plain Writing Act increased. 19 departments fulfilled the requirements of the Plain Writing Act, earning A’s for Compliance, compared with only 12 in 2013. Only 3 Departments— Education, Interior, and State—failed to fulfill the requirements of the Act.

• Many agencies also improved their Writing and Information Design scores, demonstrating commitment to the spirit of the Act, as well.

Perhaps the best sign of changing culture within these federal agencies is that many now test their documents.

Social Security, HUD and several other departments reported that they evaluate comprehension by observing and interviewing readers while they read and use plain language content. Other departments, such as VA, used remote methods, including comprehension surveys, to evaluate the documents they submitted. Still others described evaluated success by statistically contrasting peoples’ likelihood to respond appropriately before and after communications were written in plain language.

When writing is treated as a genuine attempt to communicate, we all win. Thanks to those at the Center for Plain Language who do the research required to complete these report cards.

How to perform the role of “grammar checker” at work

From beauty by the geeks
From beauty by the geeks

Yesterday in “The big grammar quiz of 2014,” the UK’s Management Today published a terrific piece about grammar in workplace writing. Test yourself with their quiz. Then review your score with their key, which includes thoughtful and accurate explanations.

If you rely on Strunk and White’s classic, The Elements of Style, you will resist those explanations. But I remind readers to consider expert opinions from Geoff Pullum in the Chronicle of Higher Education in “50 years of stupid grammar advice” or the MIT lecture with Steven Pinker, “Communicating science and technology in the 21st century.”

If you’re still resisting, check out my post, “Do you know what you’re saying about grammar,” which expands on Jonathon Owen’s “12 mistakes nearly everyone who writes about grammar mistakes makes.” If you’re hungry for another quiz and more thoughtful explanations from an expert, head over to John McIntyre’s “A grammar quiz not for sissies.”

The message here is that helping people communicate in writing is difficult. But not because they haven’t learned a list of grammar rules. (Part of the problem is that there is no single list. To understand the scope of such rules, check out the HUGE project, a database of all English usage guides.) Helping writers is hard because effective language choices cannot be reduced to that kind of list.

Instead, the Management Today piece ends with 10 terrific tips for those whose unofficial role at work is “grammar checker.”

1) Always encourage [writers] to start by thinking about the specific audience: different readers have different needs and expectations.

2) Often, ‘grammar issues’ are actually about context. How formal does the document need to be?

3) Always seek permission to offer writing advice. Lessons remembered from schooldays are deeply ingrained and criticism may be taken personally.

4) Look stuff up – the internet is the biggest reference library in the world (www.oxforddictionaries.com is good for grammar and usage).

5) Help people understand that there often isn’t a ‘right answer’ in grammar; it’s an untidy field that needs judgement.

6) Businesses that write a lot will need a house style to help make decisions. The online Guardian and Economist style guides are a good starting point.

7) If a senior person has a pet grammar peeve, first find out whether it’s justified – it could be. If it isn’t, try to help them over it (although you may end up having to lump it).

8) Blogs and social media are helpful for keeping up with grammar usage issues –Lingua Franca is a good place to start.

9) Some people think it’s okay to be a ‘grammar Nazi’ but, as the term suggests, it’s very unkind to the recipient. Be sympathetic.

10) Don’t forget, older people will always huff a bit about the literacy of the next generation. ‘There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter,’ William Langland once said – and he was born in 1332.

Thanks to the authors for offering solid advice: Andrew Ingram (Better Business Writing) and Tom Freeman (The Stroppy Editor). In the spirit of promoting those with good sense, here’s the one-minute video for Andrew’s company.

How useful are readability formulas?

Not very. I read about some interesting research last spring and meant to write more about it then.  Here’s the bottom line. The researchers evaluated 9 of the most commonly used formulas. Here’s how Willingham summarizes their findings:

All of the readability formulas were more accurate for higher ability than lower ability students. But only one—the Dale-Chall—was consistently above chance.

Only the Dale-Chall predicted reading ability better than flipping a coin. Ouch!

GunningFogIndex-300x224In general, writing experts dismiss the utility of readability formulas as a means of improving the quality of writing produced in the workplace. I mentioned the range of methods for evaluating quality before. The ACM Journal of Computer Documentation dedicated an entire issue to the topic of readability to usher in the 21st millennium century (Volume 24 Issue 3, Aug. 2000). I’ve copied their table of contents with live links and available abstracts for those of you with an interest.

Table of Contents

Introduction to this classic reprint and commentaries
Bob Waite
Pages: 105-106
The measurement of readability: useful information for communicators
George R. Klare
Pages: 107-121
Readability and computer documentation
Gretchen Hargis
Pages: 122-131
Traditional readability concerns are alive and well, but subsumed within several more recent documentation quality efforts. For example, concerns with interestingness and translatability for global markets, with audience analysis and task sufficiency, and with reader appropriateness of technical text all involve readability, but often in ways not easily measured by any formula.
Readability formulas have even more limitations than Klare discusses
Janice Redish
Pages: 132-137
A literature review reveals many technical weaknesses of readability formulas (when compared to direct usability testing with typical readers): they were developed for children s school books, not adult technical documentation;they ignore between-reader differences and the effects of content, layout, and retrieval aids on text usefulness; they emphasize countable features at the expense of more subtle contributors to text comprehension.
Readability formulas in the new millennium: what’s the use?
Karen A. Schriver
Pages: 138-140
While readability formulas were intended as a quick benchmark for indexing readabilty, they are inherently unreliable: they depend on criterion (calibration) passages too short to reflect cohesiveness, too varied to support between-formula comparisons, and too text-oriented to account for the effects of lists, enumerated sequences,and tables on text comprehension. But readability formulas did spark decades of research on what comprehension really involoves.
Klare’s “useful information” is useful for Web designers
Kristin Zibell
Pages: 141-147
In many ways the writing principles that Klare recommended 37 years ago to promote high readability scores still apply to web-site design. Behind the pursuit of readability lies audience analysis, a concern with the intellectual level, previous experience, motivation, and reading goals of ones intended audience. Suitably adjusted to take account of online interactivity, those same concerns should guide design work on web structure and interfaces today.
Readable computer documentation
George R. Klare
Pages: 148-168
Arguing that current approaches to understanding and constructing computer documentation are based on the flawed assumption that documentation works as a closed system, the authors present an alternative way of thinking about the texts that make computer technologies usable for people. Using two historical case studies, the authors describe how a genre ecologies framework provides new insights into the complex ways that people use texts to make sense of computer technologies. The framework is designed to help researchers and documentors account for contingency, decentralization, and stability in the multiple texts the people use while working with computers. The authors conclude by proposing three heuristic tools to support the work of technical communicators engaged in developing documentation today: exploratory questions, genre ecology diagrams, and organic engineering.

Choose your words carefully — when it counts

Which should you write: “Jane is an adequate team member” or “Jane is an OK team member”? The adjectives in the two options are synonyms.  So how do you choose? Are you wondering about “OK” in a written message at work?

Here’s a list of readers’ attributions made about writers based on a choice to use one of two different words in a workplace email. (These were collected during our own current research project.):

  • unsure
  • reserved
  • vague
  • passive
  • insecure
  • timid
  • confused
  • wordy
  • uncertain
  • showoff

So how much does it really matter whether you choose “adequate” or “OK”?  The answer is a lot. Sometimes.

As I wrote in The psychology of word choice, a writer has two options when deciding whether to use a word s/he has recognized as “questionable”:

  1. To satisfice by deciding the benefits of using it outweigh the costs
  2. To optimize by deciding to search for a better word

No doubt satisficing is the choice when speed is critical to the writer. Optimizing is worthwhile only when the cost of choosing the questionable word is significant enough to trump speed.

Here’s an example from the video tutorial on word choice you’ll find below. The word choice in question is “peril.” It denotes the same meaning as “danger” or “risk,” but also connotes the sense of life and death. There is simply no way to make a good choice without thinking about the context in which the word is being used. In this case, a technology consultant is writing a recommendation report to finalize his work for a client. Because of the connotation of “peril,” its use is questionable in the document. And because the writer wants to convey an impression of himself as careful, accurate, etc. to his client, he decides to optimize by searching for a better word.

Here’s another example involving the choice between “peril” or “risk.” In this situation, however, a technology consultant is writing an email to a friend and colleague about the client project.  The use of “peril” is still questionable. Because the writer is busy with more important things and isn’t worried about his friend’s impression of him as careful, accurate, etc. in this situation, he decides to satisfice by leaving the word in his email. The cost of searching for a different word in this context is too great.

Language choices cannot be accurately described as right/wrong.  They are ALWAYS more/less appropriate for or successful in a specific rhetorical context. You need to think strategically about whether you will ignore the cost, the speed, or the quality for every document you create. You can’t deliver all three. Don’t feel guilty about satisficing when the situation calls for it.

But keep in mind that everything you write — even the dozens of daily emails — has consequences for your reader, your organization, and you. Just think carefully BEFORE you satisfice!

Principles for optimizing word choice are explained in Chapter 14 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition).You’ll find many exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you recognize and fix problems with your choice of words in workplace documents. Here are some additional resources:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this page from a recommendation report based on a sample from David A. McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing textbook. It has been adapted specifically to explore how pros choose words in workplace documents. I summarize the rhetorical context as:

  • Writer: a technology consultant
  • Readers: managers for the client, a commercial brewing company
  • Bottom Line Message: a specific product is recommended for the company’s use

Here’s a revised version of that report excerpt with better word choice.

Video Tutorial

The recommendation report excerpt is included in this ~10-minute video about choosing words for workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with word choice in workplace documents. You can search for “word choice” or more specific topics like “jargon.” There are zillions of studies of the effects of word choice on readers. You could start with the following sources, which provide support for my guidance.

Biber & Conrad (2009). Register, Genre, and Style. Cambridge University Press.

Bremner (2012). Socialization and the acquisition of professional discourse: A case study in the PR industry. Written Communication, 29, pp. 7-32.

Thrush (2001). Plain English? A study of plain English vocabulary and international audiences. Technical Communication, 48(3), pp. 289-296.

Zhang (2013). Business English students learning to write for international business: What do international business practitioners have to say about their texts? English for Specific Purposes, 32(3), pp. 144-156.