Tag Archives: writing

An author’s experience of being edited

Aaron Wilkes is a prolific school textbook author. In this blog post, he talks about his experiences of being edited and shares the things that have made the editing process easier for him.

I’ve been in the ‘writing game’ for quite some time now, perhaps nearly 20 years, and I’ve been either the sole author, co-author or ‘series editor’ for over 80 student textbooks, revision guides and online resources, from Key Stages 1 to 4. I’m a history teacher by trade – it was my full-time job up to a few years ago – but, in my spare time, I’ve written for Stanley Thornes (that then became Nelson Thornes), Folens and, most recently (for the last ten years), Oxford University Press. Over the years, I’ve worked with lots of editors, both in-house and freelance, and thought I’d share my experiences of being edited and how some editors have really helped make the whole editing process easier (or in some cases, harder).

Friendly introductions

Firstly, it’s just really nice to get a friendly introductory email. I don’t expect War and Peace, but a simple ‘Hi, I’m … and I’ll be working on … etc, etc’ with a phone number is always appreciated. A quick chat over the phone can be lovely too. In fact, a quick chat is often worth its weight in gold because it gives me a chance to put a ‘voice’ to the comments and feedback I’ll get.

Now I completely understand that both writers and editors are really busy, but sometimes it can be helpful to just have a 10–15-minute conversation about things. I’m sure we’ve all received text messages that we’ve looked at and thought ‘I’m not sure how to take that’. It can be the same with feedback on manuscripts. Depending on the day I’m having, the feedback can sometimes be taken ‘wrongly’. This is where an initial chat on the phone can help, just so I feel more familiar with the editor and ‘get them’ a bit more. Writing is quite a lonely profession – you tend to sit on your own, in the quiet, for long periods of time – and when it comes to making revisions, the offer of a chat is sometimes really nice.

I’ve been working with an editor who is new to the team at OUP and she always signs off her emails by saying if you don’t want to spend lots of time answering via email, just give me a call and we’ll chat things through. Most of the time I respond by email, but sometimes it’s really nice to talk. Open lines of communication are a really important part of the process.

Woman talking on a mobile phone at her office desk

Solution-focused feedback

Another part of the process that I really value is the way I get my feedback. Personally, I don’t mind at all if an editor makes minor changes (though I still want Track Changes to show me what they are!). I write lots of words that make up lots of sentences, so will sometimes mess up the way I structure a sentence, or simply ‘overwrite’ something that can be expressed more succinctly. The editors I find easiest to work with simply fix these problems with minimal fuss. I like it when that happens – I trust the editor to get that right. And when I’ve had a conversation with the editor already, when I’ve chatted on the phone, it makes me value their changes more because I think that they understand me a little.

With slightly larger changes, in my opinion, the best editors are the ones that help you out! They throw me a bone when something reads a little ‘off’. I might have pored over the paragraph for over an hour, and in my eyes I’ve made it as good as it can be. If an editor thinks there should be a change to the ‘thrust’ or shape of the paragraph (or perhaps the whole spread itself), it is so incredibly helpful if they help out a little and shape it how they want to. It’s so nice when I read in the comments at the side of a Word document, ‘I think this might read a little better like this: [and then they construct, or part-construct the text] – have a look and let me know what you think.’ Most times I will just accept these changes.

Feedback that doesn’t overwhelm

When I get an edited manuscript back it’s usually accompanied by a load of mark-ups and comments via Track Changes. If there are loads of comments and changes – and the manuscript is awash with different coloured text where revisions have been made – it can be a little daunting (and demoralising). In recent years, I have asked my editors to clean it up a little before I get it back. Especially if the manuscript has gone to two or more people, and they’ve all made comments – do I really need to see the whole discussion? As I mentioned before, I’m happy for the changes to be made and sent back to me for a final ‘yes’ (it’s nearly always ‘yes’).

In a similar vein, feedback from OUP arrives in two forms – and I like it. The manuscript is edited and I get feedback via comments and Track Changes. All good. Then, at the next stage (when the first proof is ready), I get a ‘queries grid’, which is a Word document that acts as a conversation between reviewer, editor(s) and me. This is the part of the process that is sometimes done over the phone, and is where the quality of the relationship between editor and author is important. These grids are used to track decisions made together about queries.

Typewriter typing the text "rewrite... edit... rewrite... edit... rewrite"

Concrete examples

Another particularly powerful idea is to actually show an author the direction you want them to go in. I’ve just undertaken a new project in which the style of writing is a little different to what I’m used to. The editor simply exemplified what was required – she gave a WAGOLL. This is something that most teachers are familiar with – What A Good One Looks Like. I think this is key for getting the best out of an author – model what you want them to do.

I think this is especially important with new authors. I regard myself as a bit of an ‘old lag’ now. It’s never my first rodeo when I get a new book contract, but I know (because they’ve told me) that new authors find it really helpful to be shown what needs to be done. I’m not entirely sure that sending them a ten-page document covering what needs to be included is particularly helpful – it’s just a ‘wall of words’ – so in my experience the most productive new author meetings are the ones where you sit round a table (or on Teams) and have an experienced author come up with five, eight or ten top tips or ‘golden rules’ for writing spreads. I’ve done this several times with new author teams where I’ve sat with them and explained how a spread is formed and how the process works for me.


I enjoy and value working with editors, and have always embraced the process. I’ve become really friendly with several editors, and have even phoned them to pick their brains on little issues that have cropped up when working on other projects. To their credit, they have always been most helpful, and I have returned the favour several times when I’ve been contacted by editors who wanted a chat about something that they were struggling to get their head around. I realise that every editor–author relationship will be different, but I hope the things that have helped the editing process to go more smoothly for me might help other editors and writers out there too.

About Aaron Wilkes

Headshot of Aaron WilkesAaron Wilkes has over 20 years’ experience in teaching history and writing school textbooks. During this time he’s written or contributed to over 80 textbooks, revision guides and online resources. He leads the PGCE Secondary History course at the University of Warwick and is the co-creator and owner of the online history journal practicalhistories.com.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: pencils by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash, woman on phone by Vlada Karpovich, typewriter by Suzy Hazelwood, both on Pexels.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

Using plain English to maximise immersion in fiction

When most people think of plain English, they think of functional, practical non-fiction texts rather than stories. Here, Katherine Kirk looks at how the plain English principles can be applied to works of fiction.

In this article, I’ll explore these questions:

  • What is plain English and why does it matter for fiction?
  • How can plain English principles improve the fiction reader’s experience?
  • Does writing in plain English mean stripping fiction of its artistry?

Striking the right tone

In my former life as an English teacher, I found that many of my students, in an attempt to elevate their English to the highest possible level, were obfuscating their concepts by becoming fixated on implementing linguistic arabesques which were utterly drenched in verbosity at the expense of clarity.

If you’re still reading after that ridiculous sentence, thank you for sticking around. Most readers wouldn’t.

Using loftier words to sound like a ‘better writer’ is more common than you’d think. Students trying to pad their essays will devour a thesaurus whole and vomit the longest words onto the page. Writers for whom English might not be their first language – and some for whom it is – will often turn to the flashiest word and throw it into a sentence it has no right to be in, having missed the connotations and nuances that make a word fit just right.

Writers who hold the literary arts to be the most profound form of human expression (and rightly so!) might feel that they would be doing their book an injustice by writing it the way they speak, and that readers who come across simple sentences and words might feel that their text lacks colour.

As copyeditors, one of our aims is to have the readers’ interests at heart. Hopefully, this article will help you to show your clients that writing in plain English doesn’t mean writing in boring English, and how simplifying their texts makes it easier for readers to fall in love with their story.

Aristotle said, over two millennia ago, ‘The virtue of style is to be clear … and to be neither mean nor above the prestige of the subject, but appropriate.’ He’s talking about using the right language for the job at hand. The fiction writer’s job is to write a story their readers can escape into. Our job is to help them.

What is plain English and why does it matter?

When most people think of plain English, it’s with regard to non-fiction texts, such as warning labels, legal or government documents, or instructional guides. Laura Ripper and Luke Finley wrote an excellent introduction to plain English for the CIEP blog a few years ago.

Most plain English principles tend to be aimed at businesses and organisations that want their users, clients or readers to be able to access the information as easily as possible. But how does that apply to fiction writers?

Dr Neil James sets out more general principles, saying that plain English writing should have:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • a clear core message
  • the right level of detail
  • a fit-for-purpose structure
  • coherence and flow
  • clear document design
  • a light but professional tone
  • a readable style
  • an active voice
  • an efficient style
  • an error-free text
  • evidence-based testing.

I think these can apply to fiction too. Let’s dive in!

A reader-centred approach

Good writing transmits ideas from the writer’s mind to the reader’s. The reader imagines the world, hears the dialogue, and feels the emotions. That is immersion, and the best way to get the reader into it is by the most direct route possible – using the same language they think in. When this fails, readers write reviews like ‘I felt lost’ or ‘I couldn’t get into it’. Keeping the reader in mind means making the writing accessible to them.

A clear core message

To successfully transmit that message, it needs to be clear. In fiction, the message is multifaceted: the writer is trying to convey who the characters are, what the story is, and why it matters. If the complexity of their language is getting in the way of any of those things, then readers will feel lost. They might lose interest in the story, too. Writers must beware of tangling up the meaning and concealing it behind words readers need to look up, and sentences they’ll need to read three times to decode. They should also be careful of having a storyline so convoluted that the reader needs a wiki to keep track. If the message is clear and accessible, the reader will have a better experience (and come back for more).

The right level of detail

Sometimes in the effort to convey that image clearly to the reader, a writer might veer too far in the opposite direction by being overly specific and spelling out every little detail. Encourage your clients to give your readers the benefit of the doubt and to trust them to fill in the spaces between the words; removing the fluff will make that easier.

A fit-for-purpose structure

Plain English is about more than just sentence-level clarity. If the story jumps from flashback to flashback, wanders aimlessly through nested dreams, explodes into en dash confetti and then suddenly switches to a second-person account written entirely in italics, the reader will absolutely get confused. Some books manage a labyrinthine structure. In Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the labyrinth is the point. For genre fiction, though, the ease with which your reader can navigate the story directly correlates with their ability to be immersed in it.

Coherence and flow

We can’t all be James Joyce or Samuel Beckett; sometimes the best stories are the ones that readers can actually follow. Leading readers on a journey through the story is what good writing is all about. You don’t want to lure them into the woods only to run off, leaving them to either struggle to catch up or get lost entirely. Writers should be walking just ahead, beckoning the reader around the next corner.

Clear document design

Literary fiction can be a tricky genre to get right because many writers think it means you have to be innovative with punctuation, structure and formatting. Experimentation is fine, if it’s done well – but for immersion’s sake, for writing that disappears behind the story, it’s better to give readers what they expect by following established conventions.

A light but professional tone

Readers may feel intimidated by overly formal text, or text that is dense and inaccessible to them. They might respect the writer, but they probably won’t have as much fun reading the story as they would if it were easier for them to understand. Throwing themselves entirely into the writer’s world takes a certain kind of vulnerability, and if readers feel shut out by language they can’t understand, then they’re not going to do that. Using the right language helps readers to trust the writer and to be willing to open themselves up to having their hearts absolutely destroyed by the story. If the writer is too caught up in trying to sound smarter, then they lose the readers’ trust.

A readable style

The key thing is readability. The most beautiful sentence in the world might be a multilayered, poetic work of art, but if it requires a doctorate to unpick and understand, then the writer is excluding the majority of their readership – and for what? To show off their thesaurus?

An active voice

Now, this is where many people who like to give advice to writers tend to overgeneralise and lead writers astray. It’s also where robotic grammar checkers tend to overcorrect at the expense of clarity, flow and readability. Active voice is about making it clear who is doing what, but passive voice isn’t wrong. In the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen isn’t wrong to use the passive voice; she’s making a point, and a sarcastic one at that, setting up the entire premise of the novel.

The passive voice can and should be used with intention. Above all, aim for clarity.

An efficient style

Another bit of writerly advice that well-meaning but often misinformed people give is to cut specific words or sentence structures. It’s silly to make blanket rules when language is infinitely variable. What writers (and editors) can do is try to be as efficient as possible, such as choosing a strong adjective over two weak ones.

Simplicity doesn’t always mean fewer words. Sometimes it means using a few simpler words to convey a complex idea. Having an efficient style means getting the idea from your mind into your reader’s mind without a detour into the dictionary.

An error-free text

The purpose of grammar and punctuation is to eliminate ambiguity and enhance clarity. A logically and grammatically consistent text ensures the reader understands the story the way the writer intended them to. If the writer is trying to force the grammar into doing something it’s not meant to, they’re more likely to make a mistake. They may find themselves tangled up in semicolons and en dashes, and the reader will be just as muddled. That said, fiction is far more forgiving of its rules being bent. Being able to strike a balance between accuracy and a comfortable narrative voice is one of the key skills a fiction copyeditor needs to develop.

Evidence-based testing

What is being tested? It might be the theme or hypothesis behind the story (the ‘what if?’), or it might be the conflict between the characters, or the plausibility of the made-up science. Testing the characters by putting them under pressure is what fuels character development. Show, don’t tell means that fiction writers need to give their readers the evidence of that development by letting them see it unfold.

Reading levels in the UK and US

Putting all these principles together can help editors to make sure their clients’ writing is at an appropriate level for their target readers. According to the Center for Plain Language, the majority of American readers are reading at 8th grade level (12 to 14 years old), and the National Literary Trust reports that many adults in the UK have poor literary skills. So, having the novel in a register that requires a tertiary education to understand means the writer is probably not going to sell many books.

Maintaining the writer’s voice

Some writers may balk at the idea of simplifying their language, thinking that to do so would be to rob the text of any sense of artistry. Editors may worry that they’ll be stripping away the writer’s voice. Be careful to maintain the balance; suggest rather than dictate, and let the writer make the call.

Achieving clarity takes a certain kind of artistry. Do it with the readers in mind and they’ll keep coming back for more.

Wrapping up: plain English in fiction

The elements of plain English writing can apply as much to fiction as to non-fiction texts. Writers and editors can aim for:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • the right level of detail
  • coherence and flow
  • a readable and efficient style
  • an error-free text.

How do you apply plain English principles in your writing or editing? Drop us a line in the comments below.

More guidance on working with plain English

The CIEP has some helpful resources to help you work with plain English.

About Katherine Kirk

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who has to force herself to simplify the English in her own writing.

Rumoured to have eaten a dictionary as a child, she suffers from abibliophobia (the fear of running out of books to read). She speaks four and a half Englishes and can often be found muttering to herself about the New York Times Bee’s prejudice against most of them.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: reflection by Jingwei Ke; hedge maze by Tycho Atsma; straight road by Karsten Würth, all on Unsplash.

The A to D of writing multiple choice tests

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

Multiple choice tests are hard to get right. And I’m not just thinking of the time I scored 19% in a school physics test – statistically less than if I’d just guessed every answer. It’s actually really tricky to write high-quality questions and answer options that genuinely assess knowledge and understanding. As with a lot of the topics discussed on this blog, it’s a type of writing and editing that seems easy until you try it.

What do I mean by multiple choice (or multi-choice) questions and answers? They’re the ones with a standalone question (the stem) where the correct answer (the key) is hidden among three or four wrong answers (distractors). The people responding (let’s call them students) have to choose one or more answers from the options given. For example:

What noise does a cat make?

      1. Woof
      2. Moo
      3. Meow [key]
      4. Baa

And what do I know about multiple choice questions? Well, quite a bit. I have edited hundreds, maybe thousands, of them for one of the UK’s biggest test providers over the past 15 years. I’ve also written and edited them for, well, multiple other contexts, including textbooks, revision guides, workbooks and online learning materials.

A good multi-choice test is an objective measurement of a student’s knowledge, which can be taken and marked online, with instant feedback. However, from my experience, authors usually don’t know what a good () – or bad ()– multi-choice test looks like. They might be experts in their subject but they’ve never been taught how to actually write a test. And there’s a lot they should know, involving some pretty complex pedagogical concepts. I don’t have space to go into Bloom’s Taxonomy here but the goal is to ensure that the test is an unobtrusive channel for assessing the student’s knowledge.

So here’s a quick primer, covering four common problems.

Problem A: The question doesn’t make sense

The question must be pitched appropriately for who is taking the test. Unless it’s a Key Stage 2 SATs test, the aim is to find out what students know, not how well they can read or understand long words. Clarity is vital. The wording of question and answers should be concise and unambiguous, assessing knowledge, not literacy skills. There is usually no need to fill the question with irrelevant and confusing information:

Pet cats may be kept inside or outside, or be able to move freely between the house and garden. Sometimes neighbouring cats can enter the house in this way but owners can allow only their cat to come in by installing a special cat flap. How?

What type of cat flap prevents the wrong cats from entering the house?

Students shouldn’t have to waste time under exam conditions trying to work out what they are being asked. The question should be self-contained so that it makes sense without the answers.

My cat Pixel is:

      1. tortoiseshell.
      2. black and white. [key]
      3. ginger.
      4. tabby.

What colour is my cat Pixel?

      1. Tortoiseshell
      2. Black and white [key]
      3. Ginger
      4. Tabby

Avoid colloquialisms and unnecessarily complex language. Of course, you might want to find out whether students know a particular technical term, but the structure of the question should make that intention clear and direct.

A cat is a digitigrade. What does this mean?

      1. It has a different number of toes on its front and back paws.
      2. It walks on its toes. [key]
      3. It stands with its toes flat on the ground.
      4. It has claws.

Technical terms applied in the wrong context might also make for credible distractors.

Opinions differ on negatively phrased questions. Some people argue that they’re confusing, while others say they make students read the question more carefully. I think they’re fine under the right circumstances, and as long as the negative word (eg ‘not’) is obvious (eg formatted
in bold).

Problem B: The distractors are too obvious

I see this issue more than any other. The author knows what they want the students to know but struggles to think of plausible distractors.

What is the common name for the species felis catus?

      1. Cat
      2. Dog
      3. Elephant
      4. Human

If the correct answer can be easily guessed without any background knowledge, the question has failed in its purpose. And a test isn’t the time to try to be funny.

If it’s too hard to think of wrong answers, perhaps it’s the wrong question. Try asking it in a way that allows the distractors to be worth considering. They could be frequent misconceptions, commonly asked questions, otherwise true statements or other related terms or concepts that the student might know. For example:

What is the Latin term for the domestic cat?

      1. Felidae [Latin term for the family ‘cat’]
      2. Felis catus [key]
      3. Panthera [the genus of cats that roar]
      4. Felis silvestris [European wild cat]

All the answer options should have a similar sentence structure that follows on logically from the question. It’s the same principle as wording bullet lists to follow platform sentences – errors may unintentionally draw attention to the wrong (or right) answers.

Cats are crepuscular because they:

      1. they like to knead your laps with their paws.
      2. of their rough tongues.
      3. like to go out at dawn and dusk. [key]
      4. prefers to go out during the day.

Option lengths should be consistent – often, the correct answer is obvious because it is much longer or shorter than the distractors, and phrased slightly differently.

Where does Pixel most like to be stroked?

      1. On his back
      2. Around his face, ears, chin and at the base of his tail, where his scent glands are [key]
      3. On his tummy
      4. On his paws

Pixel deep in thought during a maths test

Avoid ‘All of the above’ – it’s a copout. Students only need to realise that more than one answer could be right to reasonably guess that ‘All of the above’ is the correct answer.

What is a cat’s favourite pastime?

      1. Sleeping
      2. Being stroked
      3. Sitting on laps
      4. All of the above.

With this example, you could also argue that ‘favourite’ implies a single pastime that the cat enjoys more than any other. ‘All of the above’, therefore, is doubly confusing.

‘None of the above’ is also a meaningless option, as it does not identify whether the student knows the correct answer.

On a related note, avoid acronym questions. Not only could a student successfully argue that a collection of letters stands for anything you want it to, but it’s also hard to write realistic distractors for a specific acronym.

What does RSPCA stand for?

      1. Really Special People’s Cats Association
      2. Royal Society for the Protection of Cats and Animals
      3. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
      4. Running Short of Possible Cat Answers

If the test isn’t delivered via software that randomises the position of the answers each time it’s administered, vary the placement of the key throughout the test, to avoid any patterns.

Problem C: The questions and/or answers are ambiguous

This is the opposite problem to the obvious distractors. A student may find that more than one option could be correct, but a multi-choice test doesn’t give the opportunity for students to answer ‘it depends’.

What noise does a cat make?

      1. Woof
      2. Moo
      3. Meow [key?]
      4. Purr [key?]

Authors are sometimes advised to ask students to find the ‘best’ answer rather than the ‘correct’ answer but this rather skates over the need for precise wording. In this case, it would be better to ask a more specific question that tests a higher level of understanding:

What noise do cats make to communicate with humans?

      1. Woof
      2. Moo
      3. Meow [key]
      4. Purr

Don’t ask ‘What would you do?’, as the student could easily defend any answer with ‘Well, I would do that!’. Similarly, avoid anything that could be seen as subjective or absolute:

Why are cats so cute?
Why do cats love fish?
Why does Pixel only come into my office when I’m in a Zoom meeting?

But it’s also important not to be too specific. Avoid closed questions – they limit the distractors:

Are whiskers a type of hair?

      1. Yes
      2. No
      3. Sometimes
      4. Meaningless fourth distractor

Problem D: The test isn’t tested

It’s not always possible to try out the questions before using them, but they should at least be run past a colleague. You might know what you mean but other people might not.

As with any edited text, develop a style guide that encompasses any aspects that could be inconsistent – the use of numbers, units and punctuation, for example.

Remember to provide students with clear instructions on how you expect them to take the test. Ensure they know what learning objectives, topics or concepts are being tested, and whether they can refer to notes or use aids such as a calculator.

Tests that are to be administered live (as opposed to being used as self-revision in a textbook) should be kept on a spreadsheet that states clearly when and how the questions have been used.

If possible, keep anonymised data on how students answered each question. There’s quite a bit of analytical science relating to this but, for general tests, all that’s really important is to ask the following:

  • Were there any distractors that nobody chose?
  • Were there any answers that everyone got right?
  • Can variations in students’ results be explained by their different levels of knowledge alone?

Learn from the data and revisit the test to change elements as necessary. Consider, too, whether a multi-choice test format is suitable for assessing everything that needs to be assessed. A bit like this blog post, some topics lend themselves to longer, more evaluative responses, and can’t be properly examined within the constraints of a few options.

But, done right, are multiple choice tests effective tools for assessing learning, useful revision aids and direct channels for measuring knowledge? Well, yes – all of the above …

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has more than 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. When she’s not hanging out with other editors (virtually or otherwise), she writes and edits textbooks, proofreads anything that’s put in front of her and posts short, often grumpy, book reviews on her blog, Ju’s Reviews.

 


Photo credits: multiple cats – The Lucky Neko; hand and paw – Humberto Arellano; whiskers – Kevin Knezic, all 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: ‘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 CIEP. 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 CIEP. 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, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Why should editors pay any attention to readability metrics?

By Howard Walwyn

Like other things that are not universally loved but keep coming back – general elections, Christmas, the X Factor – readability metrics don’t seem to be going away.

There are people out there who like general elections, Christmas and the X Factor. And there are people out there who like readability metrics. But many who don’t.

“I thought that [setting readability targets] … had long since fallen out of fashion. It’s not a reliable tool, and it’s not appropriate in many circumstances.” (SfEP forum contributor, August 2018)

This view is by no means isolated and is very defensible. Far better to write like a human than to be constrained by over-simple metrics, which don’t capture nonsensical meaning and can be outright misleading about how ‘good’ – clear, simple or ‘readable’ – a piece of prose is.

Young shocked boy holding open book

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

What are they?

A quick reminder of what the measures are, pretty much in two classes.

Flesch-type: Simple arithmetic measures of two elements: (i) the ratio of words to sentences and (ii) the ratio of syllables to words. In essence, shorter words and sentences translate to better readability scores.

Other: Widely used by Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) tools, a separate but related class of measures looks at frequency: how often something occurs and whether it is above or below a given threshold. For example if the number of sentences with a passive verb exceeds 10% the prose will be marked down on this metric. Similarly, the number of ‘long’ sentences as defined (20 words, since you ask) shouldn’t exceed 25%. And the number of sentences including a so-called ‘transition word’ should exceed 30%.

Why use them?

Why would any editor in their right mind pay attention to such simplistic notions?

Well, for two main reasons.

As a benchmark

In their own limited way – not sufficient, not even necessary, but still useful – these metrics support intuition surprisingly well. A postgraduate thesis will score around 30 on the Flesch Reading Ease measure. This is one version of the simple ratios mentioned above, scaled into an index which can be then attributed to different reading levels. 30 is hard to read. 60 is plain English. 100 is readable by an eight-year-old child.

I think of them as no more than benchmarks: background data in the back of my mind which helps me judge (1) the level of reader who find might this piece easily readable – which may be very different to who it is aimed at; and (2) how a piece compares before and after editing or compares to work by a similar but different author.

I emphasise that I fully understand the technical limitations. I wouldn’t judge a piece based solely on the metrics. But I do find the information they give me is valuable in its own terms as part of my assessment of the piece.

You can’t drive a car based solely on the speedo. You don’t even really need it that much if you’re an experienced driver. But it’s still a useful part of your armoury at the wheel.

Because clients do

This is perhaps the main reason in practice we, as editors, should be paying more attention even if we have to hold our noses while doing so.

Increasingly – perhaps reflecting the more general drive towards plain English standards in corporate and official life – non-publishing clients are using Flesch and other metrics explicitly as in-house writing targets. A couple of examples came up in a members’ forum thread on this topic.

“I do some work for a government department … their reports must have readability scores of between 40 and 60, varying according to their intended recipients.” (SfEP forum contributor, August 2018)

I can vouch for this. One of my clients in the finance sector has set external and internal Flesch readability targets for its comms department and its policy gurus respectively. The arguments are as follows:

  1. On the external (comms) side, they want to communicate in plain English and a Flesch measure is an objective way of at least encouraging that.
  2. On the internal (policy) side they want to improve their management decision-making, and clearer internal writing – which they think is at least partially evidenced by a ‘good’ Flesch score – is part of that determination.

We can help

On this basis it is pragmatic and sensible for us, as editors, to develop some expertise in the tools; while not losing any scepticism we may have for them. We can add value for clients by helping them understand the metrics better, and work with them to help them appreciate the limitations. As Luke Finley said on the forum thread I mentioned:

“There’s some evidence applying readability formulas too rigidly can make a text harder to read. To me this is an argument for putting them in the hands of language experts like editors if they’re to be used in a nuanced way.” (August 2018)

In short, keep an open mind. It could help you in your business if you have this expertise. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest volunteering them if the client doesn’t use them. But even that may be apt and valuable for certain types of non-publishing client. And you may help mitigate some of the misapplications that come with limited understanding.

You can even have fun with them. I expose my students’ work to the measures and they are often thrilled or horrified to see how academic (read tortuous) their business writing has become. And often pleased to be set on a path which involves a clear metric (even if a limited one).

Want to know more?

For more information I have published two (yes, two!) blogs on this topic, which I suppose reveals my interest: Flesh of my Flesch and The Pix Simplicity Measure.

And for a bit of further informative fun, here are the readability metrics for this blog:

  • Flesch Reading Ease 60 (plain English).
  • 24% of sentences are long; 12% are passive; within or close to the guidelines.
  • 34% of sentences with transition words: above the guideline.

In short, I am happy to release this post to the editor in the knowledge that it should be broadly ‘readable’, but you can be the human judge of that!

Howard WalwynHoward Walwyn is a writer, editor, trainer and CIEP Professional Member. After a career in the City, he now helps clients write clear business English and bridge the worlds of language and finance. He is a visiting lecturer in Writing for Business at City, University of London and has degrees in English Language & Literature and Economics. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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