Wednesday, 25 August 2010

New Book: Plain Language In Plain English

Some of my friends and colleagues are aware that I am currently studying Language of English newspapers in India. In this context, I have been in touch with Mr Nirmaldasan who has carried out valuable study in this area. I was happy to know that he is one among 20 contributors who have brought out a new book titled Plain Language In Plain English.

I am yet to see the book, but he has reviewed it for a website and I thought that journalists and journalism teachers will like to get the details about the work. This post is unusually long and includes even the table of contents because I value the effort and wish my colleagues in print journalism and media teachers should know about it.

(I am not sure if copy of the book is available in India and I notice that the price $48.5 is prohibitive for most of us.)

Here is how Mr Nirmaldasan introduces the new work:

Plain Language In Plain English, edited by Cheryl Stephens, is filled with information, knowledge and ideas about various aspects of plain language. The editor collaborated with about 20 plain English experts (I am one of them!) to produce this volume targeting every person who has to write functional documents such as ‘business letters, handbooks, instructions, proposals, progress reports, and so on’.
Written mostly in the imperative style, the book tries to explain the principles and best practices in the profession without becoming pedantic. Divided into seven parts, it takes the reader from preliminaries (definition and plain language process) to a very useful collection of resources, including letter etiquette checklist and word substitution lists.
Literary compositions seldom descend to the reader’s level; plain English documents, on the contrary, have to reach the audience. Part B teaches us how to understand and differentiate primary, secondary and significant audiences. Parts C and D deal with planning, structuring, writing and rewriting plain language documents. Part E (After You Write) discusses a few readability formulas; and Part F is all about implementing a plain language policy.
This book contains some very good quotations. Albert Einstein: “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” Will Rogers: “I love words but I don’t like strange ones. You don’t understand them and they don’t understand you. Old words is like old friends, you know ’em the minute you see ’em.” Thomas Mann: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Illustrations and cartoons break the grey and ‘prompt you to stop and think about an issue from another person’s perspective’, the perspective of the consumer and not that of a provider of services.
Personally, I liked the book — not just because my picture (on page 138) is among a constellation of plain English experts. I learnt a few things from this book. I now know, among other things, the 4 item rule and the 7-second rule. I also have come to understand that there is more to plain language than the writing of it. Thank you, Cheryl Stephens, for putting this book together, while exercising tight editorial control lest too many cooks spoil the broth.

Published in April 2010, Plain Language In Plain English is available for sale online. For more details, visit:

What and why you need to know about plain language
by Diane Macgregor
Plain language and information design are attempts at achieving successful communication with a target audience, but from different areas of specialty. The goal is the same. The techniques are similar or demand a similar rigor. The tools vary.
Writers focus on choosing and organizing words to convey information and ideas, with tools such as sentence length, voice, idiom, rhetoric, grammar, paragraphing, and headings.
Graphic designers focus on the visual presentation of those words (and the ideas behind them) thorough the arrangement of ink or pixels on a page, with tools such as fonts, colour, placement, images, graphics, illustrations, and white space.
Together they design documents that readers can and will read, documents that can and will achieve a specified purpose. The words and design work together to create clear communication. Document design includes both skill sets.
For me, the most engaging and successful projects are those that include a content expert, a writer, and a designer working as a team to create materials that work for a target audience. When that is not possible, the missing expert’s concerns and tools have to be used as best you can manage. So anyone working at creating clear, usable documents needs at least some training in the other areas, at least enough to know that these things matter and why and thus avoid the most hideous mistakes.

What Is Your Philosophy of Plain Language?
By William DuBay
For me, plain language means language that is easily read by the target audience. This always includes crafting the text to the grade level of the audience. For large public audiences this means the 9th-grade level, for texts regarding safety and health, the 5th-grade level. Greater reading ease improves comprehension, retention, reading speed, and reading perseverance. Nothing is more satisfying or effective in improving communications and the response of the audience. While the readability formulas are useful in adjusting a text to the reading level of an audience, you need a lot more than a readability score to make a text readable. You also need good skills in organization, composition, tone, design, and usability.

Table of Contents
My Philosophy of Communication
• Three Important Communication Issues
• Universal Design
• Information Processing Styles
• Is There an Average Reader?
Part A: Preliminaries
1. A Definition of Plain Language
2. The Plain Language Process
Part B: Audience Considerations
3. Identify Your Audiences
4. Research Your Readers
A Cloze Test Sample
5. Reach Readers with Special Needs
6. Consider Readers’ Literacy
7. Write Plainly for International Readers
Part C: Prepare to Write
8. Identify the Purpose of the Document
9. Build Structure and Organize Content
10. Plan a Plain Design
11. Create a Working Draft
Fish Safe Case Study
Part D: Write and Rewrite Plainly
12. Use Words the Reader Knows
Simplified: How to Write Definitions
13. Follow Usage Guidelines
14. Write Plain Sentences
15. Watch Your Tone
16. Write Plain, Effective Paragraphs
17. Use Plain Punctuation and Lists
Part E: After You Write
18. Check for Bias
19. Prove Your Document Is Plain
20. Measure Readability Using Formulas
21. Measure Readability Using Task Analysis
Part F: Implement a Plain Language Policy
22. Working in Plain Language
23. Use Style Guides as Arbiters
24. Write Plainly for Oral Delivery
Part G: Resource Collection
The IALS Rating Scale
Robert Gunning’s 10 Principles of Clear Writing
Word Substitution List by Cheryl Stephens
A Writeability Glossary by Cheryl Stephens
Top 10 Writing Tips to Ensure Clients Understand You by John Blois
Letter Etiquette Checklist by Cheryl Stephens
Document Assessment Tool by Kate Harrison Whiteside
and Cheryl Stephens
Writing Glossary
Nirmaldasan is the pen name of N. Watson Solomon, Assistant Professor of Journalism, School of Media Studies, SRM University, India. He is the Editorial Advisor to the Organisation for Studies in Literature and Environment-India (OSLE-India); Secretary of the Indian Online Media Forum; and founder-editor of the Journalism Online newsletter.
Creator of the strain index, he keeps track of plain language in his blog, Readability Monitor.
His first volume of verse titled An Eaglet In The Skies appeared in 1996. Ten years later appeared A Pocket Book Of Rhymes. He has co-authored Tinai volumes with Dr. Nirmal Selvamony and Understanding News Media (2006) with Dr. I. Arul Aram. He has co-edited Essays In Ecocriticism (2007) with Dr. Nirmal Selvamony and Mr. Rayson K. Alex.
His online publications include “Rocking Pegasus” (2002), “Literary Trivia & Curiosities” (2004) and “A Quiver Of Arrows” (2007).

Here are links to his literary and other writings:
• nirmaldasan home page
• Journalism Online newsletter
• media studies

No comments: