Tag Archives: communication

Plain English Campaign: from Thatcher to Johnson

By Lee Monks

‘Wit is the alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified)’ – TS Eliot

Although officially established in 1979, the Plain English Campaign really started life much earlier. Our roots lie in making life fairer for everyone; the Tuebrook Bugle, founded by Chrissie Maher in early 1960s Liverpudlian slums, was created to bring news to people whose education meant that general news items largely or partially passed them by. They were inadvertently excluded from their community through a combination of poor reading skills and shame. The paper’s language was simple and clear, and meant that many hundreds of locals now felt connected. News items that directly affected them were no longer baffling. Local citizens could claim more knowledge that would not only inform them but empower them too.

Democratising information

The Bugle was a highly popular and unprecedented success. There’d been nothing like it before in the UK. Working-class mums like Chrissie were predominantly responsible for its content, production and delivery (available at a nominal cost; no more than enough to get the paper printed). It was the seed from which the Plain English Campaign would later flourish; it was born out of anger that masses of people were unnecessarily marginalised. It led to revamped local conditions – no more keeping people in the dark about their rights to save money – and the appreciation that the ‘rank and file’ could enforce change, as long as they had access to all necessary facts.

Chrissie eventually moved on to other endeavours, such as the Liverpool News and the Salford Forms Market (enabling poorly educated men and women to claim what they were entitled to by helping them understand horribly written government forms), but the scope for helping people and democratising information ultimately led in one direction: towards the transformation of language and information at the national level.

Enduring change

To think of the Plain English Campaign now – as a force for the democratic good, a bulwark against jargon, legalese, obfuscation and spin – is to forget just how rampantly confusing much of the public domain information was in 1979. The event that heralded the official beginning of the campaign – Chrissie shredding impenetrable government documentation in front of the Houses of Parliament – was a watershed moment. At that point, there had been no real speaking truth to power on the matter. Those on the bottom rung simply accepted their plight. But Chrissie had nearly two decades of fighting their corner under her belt and knew how to bring about enduring change. That symbolic initiation was no gimmick – it was a call to arms. And it brought attention to a campaign that would grow rapidly in the following years.

The first few of those years were about driving home the point that pompous use of language was no longer acceptable. Walls had to be knocked down; an entire philosophy, established over centuries, needed to be replaced. There were two key elements in play, both of which were vitally important to the continued success of the campaign. One was the need to reinforce the idea that polysyllabic words were not only not impressive when it came to public information, but that the use of them was a political matter. Language was a means of shutting out vast numbers of a potential audience; if you couldn’t understand something, the onus was on the reader to parse often labyrinthine tranches of information. Long sentences, Latinate references: this habit of employing words that only a portion of a readership could appreciate needed to become less prevalent.

The second measure, without which the campaign might have taken much longer to become as established, was mockery. It was all right suggesting that people needed to know about local and national government matters and that to deny them was inherently wrong but, as has been shown since, those in power will more often than not wilfully confuse an audience rather than inform it and risk economic loss. The morality of providing clear information – which Margaret Thatcher would support – was one thing; doing the right thing, encouraged by the prime minister, was certainly effective, and the requirement that civil servants communicate clearly got things moving in the right direction. Job centre forms were already much clearer thanks to campaign pressure; medicine labels would soon follow suit.

But once it became not only regrettable but also a matter of ridicule to use poor, pointlessly complex language, things really began to take off.

So plain English became not only the right way to communicate – arguments against it only strengthened its hand in opposing a needlessly stubborn elite – but also the only respectable way. Beyond a certain point in the 1980s there were no longer convincing reasons for doing otherwise. Jargon was no longer confusing; it was laughable, easy to caricature (have a look at our Gobbledygook Generator for proof!). Those employing gobbledygook instead of plain English were not only becoming more and more unfashionable, they were figures of fun.

The game is up for poor communication

As our Foot in Mouth Award best attests: talk nonsense and you’re asking for trouble. To read a jargon-heavy sentence these days is not only to wince with discomfort but also to implicitly understand that the misuse of language is deserving of ridicule. The government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis is deplorably woolly in terms of language, and it has deservedly spawned countless mocking articles, memes and tweets. The odious ‘Stay alert’ rebranding is surely designed to put the onus on a stressed and ambivalent public to make up their own minds about just what it could possibly mean. But as the withering responses – from newspapers to those suffering harrowing loss – show, poor use of language is now not only ‘not on’, it will get the drubbing it deserves. Plain English is the benchmark; the rank and file know full well when they’re being had. For those unwilling to speak and communicate clearly the game is very quickly up.

Lee Monks is the Media and Communications Officer for PEC but has fulfilled many roles for the Campaign over the years.

 

 

 


Photo credits: Blah blah blah by Nick Fewings, and Daffodils at Westminster by Ming Jun Tan, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Stay alert: the importance of plain English in these confusing times

By Claire Beveridge

Presenting scientific data or science-based guidelines can be like walking a tightrope. Lean too far to one side and you risk falling into the trap of using too much jargon and alienating your readers. Shift too much the other way and your message becomes vague and confusing. You need look no further than the messaging from the UK Government for an example of this delicate balancing act. Their initial message ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’ was simple, direct and clearly conveyed what everyone was supposed to do. Contrast this with its successor ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives’, which was almost immediately met with confusion and parodies on social media such as ‘Be vague. Cover our backs. Shirk responsibility’. What exactly did ‘stay alert’ mean, and what could and couldn’t we do? If only they had used plainer English.

Communication of scientific and medical information is most effective when things are written clearly and simply. Scientific literacy among the general population has been reported to be decreasing, and bad writing that is too complicated makes it increasingly difficult for non-scientists to engage. Add in the pandemic of ‘fake news’ that constantly seems to swirl online and you have a dangerous mix. A BBC team recently reported that the human cost of coronavirus misinformation has included assaults, arson and death, with hundreds dying in Iran as a result of alcohol poisoning following rumours of its curative effects, and others ingesting disinfectant and even fish tank cleaner following some of the daily pronouncements by Donald Trump. The stakes could not be higher. If important information isn’t communicated in a way that people understand, the result can be the unnecessary loss of life.

The ‘dihydrogen monoxide parody’ is a classic example of how using unnecessarily complicated scientific terms and selectively reporting data can lead people to reach misplaced conclusions. It has been deployed several times, and involves water being called by an unfamiliar chemical name and members of the public being presented with a list of its well-known effects that make it sound dangerous (such as that it is used as an additive in junk foods, it is found in tumours of terminal cancer patients and it is the major component of acid rain), followed by people being urged to ‘sign here to join the campaign for it to be banned’.

Science, by its very nature, is full of questions that cannot be answered without an element of doubt. Even if someone can get the same result when they repeat an experiment, it doesn’t ‘prove’ that something is or isn’t true. Results are simply pieces of evidence that support (or refute) a theory; ‘all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final’ (Kanazawa, 2008). Understandably, this can be a hard concept to grasp, and frustration and mistrust can arise if people feel that they are not being given a ‘proper’ answer. When will we have a vaccine against COVID-19? When will our lives go back to the way they were before the pandemic? No mathematical model can accurately predict the answers to these questions because we have never experienced this situation before. Even if we had, there would be no guarantee that the situation would play out in exactly the same way again; there are simply too many factors involved. When presenting data, writers need to consider people’s expectations and be honest about what is and isn’t known, and why.

The use of plain English is also important when scientists write for other scientists. It is a golden rule of scientific writing that methods must be described so that someone else can repeat experiments, and it is best practice to aim the abstract of a research paper at a level suitable for a non-specialist graduate student. More importantly, English is the global language of science and writers must always remember that many of their readers will not be native English speakers. Reading research papers that are crammed full of acronyms and complicated terminology can feel like wading through treacle, even when the writer works in the same field as you. Imagine how this must feel if English is not your first language. When results and guidelines are published, they are shared globally to spread ideas and new findings as widely as possible, and hopefully stimulate new ideas and collaborations across different disciplines that will advance our understanding. This cannot happen if only experts in a specific field can decode what is being said. Writing in plain English both speeds up the process of sharing new knowledge and increases the chances of new and exciting discoveries being made, something that is particularly useful when confronting a global pandemic caused by a virus that has never been seen before.

Clear communication in these confusing times may also yield another benefit; increasing engagement with science and medicine holds the key to inspiring the next generation of researchers, which will hopefully increase the numbers entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Data from STEM Women show that the split between men and women in terms of studying STEM subjects at university and then going on to pursue a career in STEM is still far from equal. We have a golden opportunity to readjust this balance if we can clearly communicate just how fascinating and rewarding scientific and medical research can be.

I have seen a lot of posts online musing over whether COVID-19 will change the way we live and work forever. If we can increase our use of plain English when communicating scientific data and guidelines, one positive change may be increased engagement.

Claire Beveridge is a CIEP Advanced Professional Member specialising in medicine and the biological sciences. Based near Oxford, she has over 13 years’ experience working with publishers and individual researchers. She has recently developed a worrying fascination with personal finance. Find her on Twitter.

 


If you’re looking for an experienced editor skilled in plain English editing, search for ‘plain English’ in the CIEP Directory.


Photo credits: tightrope by Loic Leray; clear water by Rots Marie-Hélène, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Not just fun and games: the CPD of escape rooms

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

You might think I’m just a meek and unassuming editor, but I have a secret identity. When I’m not correcting content, I may be stealing diamonds, exploring Egyptian tombs, solving crimes or perhaps even saving the world (twice from a renegade sheep). Despite my reputation for remaining calm under pressure, I have been known to scream, ‘Why are you just standing there? We only have three minutes to defuse the bomb!’

Yes, I’m an escape room enthusiast. Bear with me because the link to continuing professional development (CPD) isn’t as tenuous as you might think. After 20 years as an editor, I’m still committed to learning but I’ve completed most relevant courses at least once, so have begun to seek out new ways to build and apply my skills. After all, we editorial professionals don’t just spend our days correcting grammar and swearing at Microsoft Word – we also practise problem solving, time management, team working and lateral thinking. And all these skills are tested and strengthened in escape rooms.

What is an escape room?

Basically, you and your team of two to about seven people enter a room to solve puzzles relating to a particular theme or story within a set amount time (usually an hour but, increasingly, 90 minutes). In fact, ‘escape room’ is rather a misleading term. It’s really more about escapism than escaping. Although you may need to find a way out of a setting like a prison or cabin within the time limit, instead you could solve a crime, find a relic, save a pirate ship or pass all your wizarding exams. Sometimes the challenge is just collecting as many toy cats as you can. You won’t actually be locked in (I believe that’s illegal) and, in fact, many rooms allow you to leave at any time – but what would be the fun of that? I won’t spoil your future games by describing the puzzles you’ll encounter in detail but they may involve matching words, spotting inconsistences, identifying patterns, remembering sequences, cracking codes, finding pieces of a jigsaw and completing it, or something more physical, such as shooting foam bullets at a target. Typically, you’ll need to identify a numeric sequence or locate a key for a padlock. It’s seen as bad form to require external general knowledge (that’s what pub quizzes are for) so, as long as you know simple maths and the alphabet, you’ll be able to make a start. If you get stuck, your games master, who monitors you on CCTV, can provide a hint.

Most escape rooms are aimed at adults but switched-on kids aged over eight or so often excel as part of a grown-up team, as long as the theme isn’t too scary – my 11-year-old escape room veteran refuses to do any rooms relating to Egyptian mummies, zombies or school detentions. As for the rooms themselves, some are charmingly homemade, some are slickly mechanised and some have amazing movie-quality sets but all require players to accept the scenario in which they find themselves and work together to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. Can you see the parallels with publishing yet?

Julia and her husband test a virtual reality game at ERIC. Photo by Guy Wah Photography.

Take my nearest venue, Fakenham Escape Rooms. In this game, we have been employed by the International Rescue Corps to complete the work of a missing professor who had been working on new technology that predicts the time and location of natural disasters. Our mission is to find his research and coordinate our findings to discover where and when the next disaster will be. It’s a fun, immersive room and, as it happens, we were top of the leader board for six months until some professional escapologists (pah!) completed it slightly quicker. It’s the taking part that counts – but beating other teams does motivate competitive players like me. The owners subsequently asked us to test their new room before it officially opened, and listened to our constructive feedback on the experience, a bit like a physical version of proofreading.

It’s all about teamwork

So, what makes a good escape room team? Well, I’ve edited enough business books to be intimately acquainted with the Belbin team roles, and have played enough escape rooms to know that combining people with different skills is going to get the job done quicker and better. For example, my daughter has a mind like a trap and is good at finding hidden items. My programmer husband can apply logic to any situation, and I delegate all the maths puzzles to him. Some of the friends I’ve played with are efficient, organised and focused. Others are highly creative or have an in-depth knowledge of binary. As for me, when I asked for feedback on my performance, Team-mate 1 (my daughter) said I’m quick to make connections between different elements and Team-mate 2 (my husband), after some thought, said I’m better at reading than he is. Our greatest triumphs have been a result of focusing on the goal, clear communication and mutual respect for each other’s abilities. All of which are ingredients for successfully managing any project.

Benefiting more than just me

I’ve attended two excellent conferences this year. One was (naturally) the SfEP conference at Aston University. The other was the amusingly named ERIC – the Escape Room Industry Conference in glamorous Dagenham. Covering everything from game theory to marketing, with a little acting thrown in, it was the most enjoyable small-business foundation course that you can imagine. I came home brimming with ideas for developing my own editing business (‘escape rooms’ now features as a key word in my SfEP Directory entry – puzzle tester for hire). As a textbook specialist, I’d love to look at ways of engaging learners via puzzles and for improving testing methods such as those tricky multiple-choice questions that authors always struggle to perfect.

What’s more, while I’m not quite ready to open my own escape room (watch this space), I made a contact at ERIC which has resulted in another exciting new project. I’ve joined forces with my local library to coordinate a treasure trail for teams of Key Stage 2 pupils (9 to 11 year olds) in which they have to use the library facilities to tackle puzzles and act out a narrative – hopefully developing their literacy and problem-solving skills, and their enthusiasm for libraries, in the process.

Try it for yourself

There are now about 1,500 escape rooms in the UK, and maybe 20,000 in the world, so there’s likely to be at least one near you. Some are inevitably better than others – read reviews before you go to gain an idea of quality because it’s admittedly not a cheap hobby. The typical cost is around £20 per person, and it can be even more expensive if (as a purely hypothetical example, of course) you choose to celebrate 20 years with your husband by travelling to Margate to play five games over two days (Kent being the unlikely escape-room capital of the UK). It’s still cheaper than formal training as well as fun, educational and a welcome break from those ubiquitous screens.

Excuse me, I’m just off to Google ‘Milton Keynes escape rooms’. If you want to join my team for some extra escapist CPD while we’re in town for the 2020 CIEP conference, let me know!

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. She has written and edited numerous textbooks, specialising in vocational education, media studies, construction, health and safety, and travel. In her spare time, she’s a pirate, spy and astronaut.

 


Thinking about your CPD plans for 2020? The SfEP offers a wide variety of courses, and more informal CPD is available through its members’ forums and local groups.


Photo credits: Sheep Jonathan Poncelet, Escape Rooms sign – Zachary Keimig, both on Unsplash; Julia and her husband testing a virtual reality game at ERIC Guy Wah Photography.

Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human’

By Laura Ripper and Luke Finley

Ever had to deal with text that makes you feel alienated, inadequate or frustrated? We’ve all had that experience – of struggling to make sense of writing that’s pretentious and showy, filled with jargon and buzzwords, or simply badly planned and confusing.

Sometimes you might long for the writing to be as poetic as Shakespeare, as gripping as Stephen King or as much fun to read as JK Rowling. But when you need information quickly, you just want it to tell you, without all the frills, what you need to know.

In other words, you want it in plain English.

Water ripples above book pagesWhat is plain English?

Plain English is about communicating with people in writing as clearly as possible.

George Orwell and Ernest Gowers, writing in the 1940s, were among the first to encourage writers to use plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human,’ wrote Gowers in his guide Plain Words. There’s no one accepted definition today, but the International Plain Language Federation sums it up nicely:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information. [our emphasis]

It’s about putting the reader’s needs first, even above the writer’s preferences, when it comes to deciding how to word and organise a text. This doesn’t ignore the writer’s priorities – quite the opposite! What’s your main aim as a writer, if not to communicate clearly with your readers?

What is it for?

You can use plain English to:

  • make information accessible to people who aren’t specialists in your area (whether that’s about health, money, research, government policy or something else)
  • share essential information (on safety or the law)
  • give people the chance to have a say on things that affect them, or to use services they’re entitled to
  • build a reputation for putting customers first
  • build a good relationship with readers
  • save time and money (on clarifying misunderstandings, reprinting documents).

So you can use it for ethical and economic reasons. By making letters, reports, policies, articles and application forms easier for people they affect to read and understand, you’re making a difference to those people. You’re also making savings for your organisation, and helping to achieve its marketing aims.

What can using plain English do for me?

Writing in plain English can help your organisation:

  • make the text more effective (informing, selling to or empowering the reader, or appealing to more readers)
  • market itself (by strengthening your reputation, building trust and loyalty, and attracting customers, staff and suppliers)
  • achieve its business aims (eg increasing profit by saving time and money)
  • fulfil its purpose (providing a public service, raising awareness of an important issue).

Open book with letters flying outHow can an editor help?

Editors offering plain English services can help by making text clearer and easier to read. Many of them can suggest ways to improve its structure and layout too.

According to the Oxford Guide to Plain English, the average UK adult has a reading age of just 13. They’re also busy – they don’t have time to read insurance policies for pleasure. So in a plain English edit, an editor aims to make the writing as easy as possible for the average person to read.

To do this, editors follow established guidelines, such as those in the Oxford Guide. ‘Translating’ a piece of writing into plain English isn’t a mechanical exercise, though – a trained editor considers the reader’s level of knowledge and what will be clearest for them.

Some editors can also help by:

  • giving training about using plain English
  • completely re-writing a document, or writing a plain English summary
  • designing templates and style guides that follow plain English principles.

What else can I do?

  • Keep the reader in mind when you’re planning, writing and designing the text – think about what will be clearest and most logical for them.
  • Make sure you’ve included all the information the reader needs – don’t assume they know as much about your subject as you do.
  • Learn about the principles of plain English (by doing training and using resources, such as those available from the National Adult Literacy Agency in Ireland).
  • Test the text on real readers to see if they understand it quickly and easily.
  • Get feedback from readers on documents you’ve already published and make improvements.

If you write in simple, direct language, readers are more likely to respect and value what you have to say. And this will make as much of a difference to you, and your priorities, as it will to your readers.

Laura RipperLaura Ripper began her career in 2004 at Plain English Campaign, where she translated all sorts of documents into plain language. In 2008 she moved to a wider editorial and communications role, which included raising awareness of the UK’s switch to digital TV. Laura set up her proofreading and editing business in 2012 to concentrate on the aspects of her job that she loves best. She still specialises in plain English, and has found these skills useful for every type of document – from journal articles to board game rules. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. When she isn’t at her desk, Laura loves walking in the hills. She has two feline assistants.

Luke FinleyLuke Finley set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013 and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. He briefly worked in publishing in the 1990s, but most of his working life has been spent in the voluntary and public sectors, in social policy development and implementation. His experience of local government gave him a keen interest in plain English and trying (sometimes in vain) to persuade people to communicate more clearly.  Luke will edit or proofread anything from academic books to charities’ annual reports to travel agents’ websites, but mostly works on social policy and politics texts.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.