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MSPTC Student Review on Deborah Bosley's Plain Language Webinar / by Daniel Aalderks

The following review was selected for publication from blogs submitted by students of the MSPTC program at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), who attended the event. NJIT's MSPTC program offers a completely online MS degree in Professional and Technical Communication, and two online Graduate Certificates -- Social Media Essentials or Technical Communication Essentials. These can be applied towards a full MS program.

Plain Language: Cutting Down on the Bull

I recently attended a WebEx seminar hosted by the STC New York Metro chapter. The presenter, Dr. Deborah S. Bosley, is an associate professor of English at UNC Charlotte, the president of the Plain Language International Network, and a well-regarded technical communication scholar. Last but not least, she’s an expert in plain language communication. In short, if I wanted to learn about the advantages of employing plain language in technical communication, this was the right woman to listen to. 

I am writing the following article to pass along some of the information I picked up at this workshop. If it at least gets you curious about plain language, I will be more than happy.

What is it, and why do we need it?

We have all been there. Opening the mail, sitting across from a sales associate, or opening the newest toy/gadget, we find we have been presented with a daunting document filled with jargon and complications. Jargon-heavy text rarely fosters a sense of trust and, according to studies presented by Dr. Bosley, the public’s perception of the writer’s intelligence can decline.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 and similar laws were passed in response to the public’s growing confusion and frustration with incomprehensible communication. These laws have created a new skillset for technical communicators to master. Plain language communication is an expertise, and potentially a career, that is in demand.

Plain language is the use of proven writing and designing strategies that make it easy for the intended audience to find, understand, and use information. The emphasis of plain language is to be clear, credible, and concise. Rather than explaining something in 75 words, try to do it in 25 while still communicating your intentions to the audience. Relying on long and confusing texts is common problem that organizations are realizing they have to correct. Imprecise language can tie up many employee hours and other assets that might be better used.

A plain language specialist can create documents that survive a brief reading during which the reader decides if the document is worth continuing with. On average, this time is approximately eight seconds, according to Bosley. It is kind of funny that plain language specialists and bull riders both have the same goal – having their work survive past eight seconds.

How to Write in Plain Language

Writing in plain language is not as simple as you think. You have to be able to convey the same meaning and amount of information using more efficient language. Given enough time and a willingness to ramble, I could write about many topics. That does not mean that you will actually learn anything from me.

Dr.Bosley brought up a number of strategies for communicating in plain language. The following points are some I thought were most interesting and that I can better incorporate into my own writing.

  1. Use active voice (the subject performs the actions)
  2. Use pronouns (typically I use words like user, controller, or administrator perhaps too often)
  3. Write short sentences and paragraphs
  4. Use headings and lists (probably in an effort to break text up into “manageable chunks”) Include visuals (tables, diagrams, screenshots, etc.)

Resources to get you started

Technical communicators often possess the basic skills needed to become plain language specialists, but they probably do not know everything or could benefit from additional information.

These are great sources for you to begin researching and learning about plain language.

Being a Farm Kid Helps

Well, yes it may, but it is in no way a requirement. During the discussion, Dr. Bosley presented a report card she generated from a study on several government agencies’ compliance with the Plain Writing Act. I noticed that the United States Department of Agriculture scored significantly higher than other agencies, as you can see from the image below that I borrowed from her lecture.

Plain Language Report Card

I have to say, as a farm kid from rural Minnesota, I felt like gloating just a bit. “That’s right,” I wanted to say. “If you want something said straight, talk to a farmer.”

Besides helping to inflate my own ego, this chart does serve a much better purpose. It shows that while plain language may now be law and the goal of various companies and government agencies, plain language specialists are still needed, frequently in government employment.

Positions are out there and technical communicators are well positioned to take advantage of this career opportunity. I hope the information I am passing on to you will help in the future.

Sources Cited

Bosley, Deborah, Dr. "Plain Language - What Is It? How Does It Work? Why Should You Care?" Thomson Reuters, New York, 14 Mar. 2013. Lecture.