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MSPTC Student Review on Deborah Bosley's Plain Language Webinar / by Kierra Bloom

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.

STC NY METRO SEMINAR—PLAIN LANGUAGE:
WHAT IS IT? HOW DOES IT WORK? WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?

On Thursday March 14, I had the opportunity to virtually attend an STC NY Metro presentation given by Dr. Debra Bosley titled “Plain Language: What is It? How Does it Work? Why Should You Care?” If anyone is qualified to answer these three questions, it’s Dr. Bosley. In addition to teaching English at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, she is also the Principal of The Plain Language Group where she works with businesses to help them create easy-to-understand documents for their employees and customers. Dr. Bosely was engaging, informative, and provided many interesting examples of communication gone both right and wrong (sometimes hilariously wrong, as illustrated by the “Homicide Victims Rarely Talk to Police” headline featured in her opening!) While plain language writing and technical writing aren’t always synonymous, there are definitely some plain language concepts that can be useful to us as we develop our technical writing skills.

What is Plain Language?

Dr. Bosley explained that “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.” Every day we’re bombarded with information from a variety of sources. How much of this information do we actually take the time to read? How much of what we read do we actually understand?

Documents like cell phone contracts, insurance policies, and medical documentation can be dense with text and filled with legalese or industry jargon that’s not familiar to many of us. Consequences ranging from mild annoyance at having to spend an afternoon on the phone with customer service for clarification to more serious situations like harmful drug interactions can result when we can’t understand important information. 

Plain language seeks to eliminate these types of misunderstandings by presenting important information in a clear, concise, and credible way—a skill that is also necessary to us in our roles as technical communicators. Depending on what we’re writing and who we’re writing for, avoiding jargon entirely may not always be possible. However, striving for clarity and ease of understanding should always be one of our goals as technical communicators.

How Does Plain Language Work?

As Dr. Bosley notes, “it’s easy to be complex; it’s hard to be simple”. Plain language is not something that comes naturally to many of us; especially those of us used to writing for a particular professional industry steeped in its own terminology. By contrast, plain language writing is intended for the public at large. Since a public audience will include people from all walks of life with varying levels of education, experience, and comprehension, it’s important that written documentation be relayed in a simple and logical manner. In addition to dropping the jargon, Dr. Bosley explained that when it comes to plain language writing it’s important to organize information for your readers’ needs, use short, concise sentences and paragraphs, and to use pronouns and an active voice.

Visual presentation is also important. Showing information can often be more effective than telling it, so simple graphs, charts, and images should be used throughout your documents when possible to illustrate important points and to break up large chunks of text.

As we’re learning in our professional and technical communications courses, content organization and document design are also critical components of successful technical writing. Dr. Bosley’s presentation was filled with helpful strategies for incorporating plain language into our own writing.


Why Should We Care about Plain Language?

Plainly put, plain language is the law. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires that the US government present documents intended for public use, such as tax returns and federal student aid forms, in easy-to-understand language.

Using plain language is not just important for the federal government, however. Dr. Bosley cited some studies in her presentation that show that failing to use plain language in corporate documentation leads to customer and investor mistrust, a decrease in forecasted earnings, and has a negative impact on corporate reputation.

Businesses can also wind up wasting valuable time and money devoting resources to clarifying difficult to understand, poorly designed documents. This is something important to keep in mind when writing technical documentation on the job. You don’t want to spend extra time and effort having to re-explain what you were originally trying to say.

Interestingly, another study Dr. Bosley discussed showed that college students actually underestimate a writer’s intelligence when the writer does not use plain language. This is a great reminder that big words don’t necessarily signify to readers that you know what you’re talking about.

Where Can We Learn More?

Dr. Bosley definitely made a plain language believer out of me. As I mentioned earlier though, writing in plain language is not necessarily as easy as it may seem. Fortunately, she concluded her presentation by offering some resources for more information on plain language, its benefits, and how to use it. The following websites are great assets for those of us who could use some additional guidance to improve our plain language skills and, in turn, our technical writing.

  • The Center for Plain Language advocates for the use of plain language in government and business. They offer plain language information, training, and events. centerforplainlanguage.org/
  • Plain Language Association International is an international non-profit organization that aims to increase public awareness of plain language in all forms of communication. www.plainlanguagenetwork.org
  • The Plain Language Action and Information Network promotes the use of plain language in the US government. www.plainlanguage.gov
  • A Plain English Handbook: How to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents, while focused on the Securities and Exchange Commission, is a good place to go for tips on how to use plain language. www.sec.gov/pdf/handbook.pdf
  • The USDA pledges to present information to the public using plain language and offers information on its plain language initiative. www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=PLAIN_WRITING
  • The National Institute of Health website explains their “Clear Communication” initiative. www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/
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