Tag Archives: plain English

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.

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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.

Plain English: new resources for editors

By Laura Ripper and Luke Finley

Are you thinking of adding plain-English editing to your services? Perhaps you have done so already, and you’d like to promote your service to more clients. Maybe you work in-house for an organisation that uses plain English, editing your colleagues’ writing. Or perhaps you’ve been hearing more about this thing known as ‘plain English’ lately, and you want to find out what it’s all about.

If that sounds like you, you might be interested in two new resources:

Using plain English (also known as plain language) helps organisations fulfil their purpose, whether it’s to make a difference in society or to make a profit for shareholders. Organisations in the public sector have a responsibility to communicate clearly so that people can use public services, understand how decisions affect them and take part in public life. Researchers write plain-English summaries to make academic knowledge accessible to more people. And private companies use plain English as a marketing tool and to save time and money on sorting out misunderstandings.

As more organisations see the advantages of using plain English, more of them are working with language professionals to make sure their documents are genuinely easy to read, use and understand. And more editors are working outside traditional publishing for the kinds of clients who want support with plain English, either as well as or in place of a ‘standard’ edit.

Plain English is about much more than word choice and sentence length; anyone who provides plain-English support needs to know about all the guidelines, techniques and tools and when to use them. Most importantly, they need to use them in a balanced and nuanced way. That puts editors, who are experienced in considering the finer points of language use as well as the wider context, in a good position to help.

If you want to find out about the basics of plain-English editing, the updated guide is a helpful introduction to what’s involved. If you want to learn more and gain some practice, the new course will help you to build on the skills you already have and use them in the context of plain English.

Editing into Plain English guide

We’ve updated the original SfEP guide on plain English, written by Sarah Carr, to reflect how the market has changed since it was first published.

What does it cover?

The guide is an introduction to plain-English editing. It includes information about:

  • What plain English is, and what it isn’t.
  • Evidence for the benefits of using plain English.
  • Training and qualifications.
  • Plain-English services you could provide, and how to price them.
  • Marketing your services and finding clients.
  • Working with clients in practice, especially non-publishers.
  • Software that can help.
  • Useful resources.

What’s changed since the first edition?

We’ve updated the guide throughout, but in particular you’ll find new information on:

  • Recent developments in plain English around the world, and which sectors are using it.
  • How plain English benefits business clients.
  • Ways to market your services and find clients.
  • What to consider when discussing a project with a client.
  • Resources and further reading.

Plain English for Editors online course

This new course looks at plain English from the perspective of editing. It explains how to use widely accepted guidelines to improve text that has already been written, and looks at the challenges involved.

Who is it for?

The course is for you if you:

  • Already provide plain-English services and want to develop your skills.
  • Want to branch out into providing plain-English services.
  • Want to use plain-English techniques as part of your other editing services.
  • Work in-house and edit colleagues’ writing.

What does it cover?

This course aims to explain what plain English is, give you the skills to use guidelines on plain-English editing with thought and care, and develop your understanding of how to market your services and deal with challenges. It covers:

  • What plain English is, and what it’s for.
  • The history of the plain-English ‘movement’ and more recent developments in uses and thinking.
  • Six main guidelines for plain-English editing, from word choice to layout.
  • Tools in Word and other software that can help, and the pitfalls to watch out for.
  • The practicalities of plain English editing – working with clients, dealing with misconceptions and challenging texts, and marketing your services.

The course gives you plenty of practice in using the guidelines with careful judgement, considering the context, the reader’s needs and the client’s needs. This helps you to develop the skills needed to genuinely improve clarity and ease of reading, rather than applying a set of ‘rules’ that simply tick a box.

In short, if you’re an editor offering plain-English services – or hoping to do so in future – these two resources will make an essential contribution to your continuing professional development (CPD). And if you’re a client or commissioner of editing services, and making your copy clear and easily understood is one of your priorities, you can be confident that any editor who draws on these resources is well equipped to help you achieve this.


Laura Ripper is a self-employed copy-editor and an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She started out at Plain English Campaign in 2004, editing documents for private companies and public-sector organisations. After that she joined Foundations and then Digital Outreach – companies that worked with charities on behalf of the UK government. As an editor, she helped these companies communicate clearly with various audiences. She has also taught English as a foreign language in Russia and China. She has co-written the SfEP online course Plain English for Editors and the SfEP guide Editing into Plain English.

Luke Finley set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013/14 and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. Most of his working life until 2014 was spent in the voluntary and public sectors, which gave him a keen interest in plain English and trying to persuade people to communciate more clearly. He also wrote and delivered various kinds of training. As an editor, he has presented on plain English at two SfEP conferences and is the co-author of (with Laura Ripper) the SfEP online course Plain English for Editors and (with Laura Ripper and Sarah Carr) the SfEP guide Editing into Plain English.


Head to the SfEP website to sign up for the Plain English for Editors course and to buy the Editing into Plain English guide.


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

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

Six ways an editor can improve your business content

By Mary McCauley

What do you think of when you read the words ‘editor’ or ‘proofreader’? Perhaps if you haven’t used our services before, you might think of us as people who look for spelling and grammar errors? People who check that commas are in the right places? And, yes, you’d be right – we do check these things. But we can also do much more to help you produce content that delivers on its business objective.

Business report on a deskBusiness editors work on a wide range of business content including reports, strategies, policies, newsletters, blog posts, websites, brochures, marketing material, catalogues, manuals, presentations, directories and survey results. Here are six ways an editor can add value to these documents.

1. An editor can make sure your content is clearly written and complete

Often when we are so familiar with or knowledgeable about a topic, we have difficulty explaining it in a way that a non-expert reader can understand. So whether it’s a guide about your services, a marketing material promoting a new product, or a report on a technical examination, an editor can make sure that your intended readers will understand it and take action as you want them to.

An editor can edit and, if necessary, rewrite your content to ensure that:

  • The wording, style and tone are suitable for the target reader.
  • The content flows in a logical order the reader can follow.
  • There is no confusing or misleading content.
  • No important information is missing.
  • No unnecessary information is included.
  • The layout helps guide the reader, eg paragraphs, headings, lists, graphics.
  • The language, spelling and style are consistent.

2. An editor can check that the basic facts in your content are correct

While businesses are responsible for the content they create, editors can help make sure that this content is accurate. We can save you from publishing an embarrassing mistake and the potential customer mistrust that might follow. If, for example, you are writing a business-to-business report, you might include details of your client’s or another company’s name and products. You might refer to relevant legislation or to specific dates. It’s important that these details are correct and that your client can rely on you to get them right.

An editor can check that names are spelled correctly, that you’ve referred to the correct section and year in the legislation and that Thursday 16 November 2018 actually was a Thursday.

3. An editor can rewrite your content into plain English

Writing in plain English is not about ‘dumbing down’ language, nor is it only for target audiences that include people with reading difficulties. Customers are busy and probably prefer not to have to wade through dense, long-winded text to get to the basic information they’re looking for. Writing in plain, simple language can help you deliver your message more successfully. And if your customers understand it, you’ll have fewer queries to deal with.

A plain English editor can help ensure that your content contains:

  • language your target audience will understand
  • positive and active language
  • everyday vocabulary.

And that it avoids:

  • long, meandering sentences
  • problematic jargon and bureaucratic phrasing
  • unnecessary words and phrases
  • unnecessary capital letters.

4. An editor can create a style guide for your organisation’s written content

Does your organisation create a lot of written content? Is it written by two or more people? Is the work subcontracted to copywriters, design companies, printers, etc? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then consider developing your own organisation-specific style guide. Using one means it’s more likely your documents will be consistent in language and style. This in turn helps increase your customers’ confidence in your business.

An editor can create and develop a style guide specifically for your organisation. This will guide the people writing your content on things such as:

  • Capitalisation – chief executive officer or Chief Executive Officer?
  • Numbers and symbols – 20% or 20 per cent?
  • Currency – euros or euro?
  • Lists – full stops, commas or nothing at the end of bullet points?
  • Dates and time – 13 May 2019 or May 13, 2019?
  • Spelling preferences – recognise or recognize?
  • Quotations – double quote marks or single?

An editor can also include an A–Z list of words, terms and abbreviations used regularly in your business and give guidance on the spelling, capitalisation, etc of these.

People sat around a table, discussing a business plan

5. An editor can deliver editing and proofreading training to your staff

If you would like to develop your organisation’s in-house writing and editing expertise, an editor can design and deliver workshops for your staff based on your organisation’s particular needs. This will help your staff to write better business content.

An editor can provide training on:

  • editing and rewriting content
  • writing in plain English
  • using your organisation’s style guide
  • proofreading.

6. An editor can proofread your final designed content before it goes to the printer

Along with all this added value an editor can bring to your business content, we can still help you with that final proofread of your designed and laid-out content. However, this proofread includes so much more than just a check for spelling and grammar errors! Business clients are often amazed by how detailed a final proofread can be and the range of problems it can highlight.

An editor can proofread your final document to check that:

  • A table of contents page matches the actual contents.
  • Headers, footers and page numbers are correct and consistent.
  • The content is laid out correctly and in the right order.
  • Headings and subheadings are correctly and consistently styled.
  • Lists are consistently styled and punctuated.
  • Images and graphics are clear and placed correctly.
  • Tables and figures are numbered, captioned, referenced and styled correctly.
  • Hyperlinks work and are styled consistently.

The above is just a sample list and by no means exhaustive – there are lots of other things we also check for in a final proofread.

Your business content is important, and getting it wrong can be costly and time consuming. An editor can do so much more than just check it for spelling mistakes, so consider contracting a trained professional editor to help you create the best content for your business.

Note: For the record, 16 November 2018 was a Friday and not a Thursday!

Mary McCauley

Mary McCauley is an editor and proofreader specialising in helping business, government and public sector bodies in Ireland and the UK. She has 15 years’ business research and administration experience, mostly in the public sector, and started her editorial business Mary McCauley Proofreading in 2012. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP and a Full Member of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers of Ireland (AFEPI Ireland). Connect with Mary on LinkedIn or on Twitter.


The SfEP offers bespoke training courses, led by experienced and skilled editorial professionals, suitable for any organisation that wants to produce high quality content.


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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.