by Nicole Watkins Campbell
Editing for Plainer Legal Writing Instructor
The best way to ensure your document meets readers’ needs is to test it with the audience. Even testing that is quick and cheap can give you useful information about how to improve your document.
What is a test?
A test can be as simple as asking a colleague or a citizen to answer one question about your text or as complicated as inviting 30 people to read your document and answer questions. Almost any test will help you make the writing better. And any test with a member of your audience will get you closer to writing that works for your readers.
When should you test?
Start testing as soon as you have enough material to test. Don’t wait until your document is complete unless it’s a short email.
Make corrections based on feedback, and test again, if you can. The best practice is to test a couple of times, and more if the text is important and could be difficult for your readers.
How should you test?
Several methods will help you improve your document.
Record your results in some way:
Who should you recruit?
Testing documents internally with co-workers while you’re still writing is highly useful. You can then test a final draft with someone from outside your team. Your co-workers will likely read about as well as you do and have the same technical understanding, so you will want other perspectives on the complexity of the language and the topic.
Don’t test with people who know the information in the document or people who helped you get to this point in creating this document. They will know too much about your subject area to notice what’s missing or out of place.
Your word processor or a website like Hemingway Editor will offer quick readability tests. But these long-established ways of describing how readable a text is actually don’t mean much. They were originally created to measure children’s reading skills, not documents for adults.
The software counts syllables (to represent complexity in language), words and paragraphs (to represent complexity in expression) to roughly estimate reading difficulty. The resulting number claims to reflect the number of years of education a person needs to read the text.
Readability measures fail in three main ways:
If your text readability score from Microsoft Word or Hemingway Editor is gets a Grade 10 or higher, you probably need to edit for clarity: many people don’t read at this level. If you test again, you will be able to see if your changes made your sentences easier to read, but you should rely on other methods to make sure your text is clear.
Try setting up a simple test of a bit of writing this week. You will learn something surprising or pleasing. But you will learn something.
Nicole Watkins Campbell
with Sarah Slabbert and Nadja Green,
Plain Language Institute, SA
We are just finishing up the first offering of our Advanced course on strategic planning for plain language. It is also the first course offered on the Academy's new Moodle platform.
Implementing Plain Language in an organization is almost invariably a challenge and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Most of our students have practical experience of this challenge and they therefore expect the course to offer solutions that they can apply. Moodle enables us to listen to our students in one-on-one conversations and to understand their unique needs. Moodle also makes it easy for us to continuously improve our course and add new learnings as we go along.
We enjoyed working with Moodle and students are giving us positive feedback. Sarah and Nadja.
NextA5 Implementing Plain Language as a Strategic Priority
starts August 16.
Academy reflects plain language principles
The Academy strives to be like plain language itself.
1. go to plainlanguageacademy.moodlecloud.com,
2. create your account
3. choose and register for your courses.
You will have access the day the course starts.
If you have any questions or issues, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Choose from our three Core courses on Basics, Audiences, and Writing and Editing.
Or, select an Advanced course suited to your current or upcoming needs. Topics include creating e-content, legal editing, health literacy, design, testing, science, and strategic planning. More are coming.
We are so excited about our new platform, we just want everyone else to share the experience.
Plain Language Academies (PLA) expands
New courses, languages, instructors, opportunities
Plain language knows no boundaries: so we are expanding ours to offer plain language courses in French, Spanish, and in South Africa. We want plain language to be everywhere because we know it is for everyone.
'New' is a key word for today's personal and work lives. The Plain Language Academies' team is creating more ways to share our skills and meet your growing needs for clear communication. Take advantage of current Core and Advanced courses at last year's fees. We encourage you to explore Advanced courses that tackle specific topics like clear health, legal, science, strategic planning, and online communication. New courses are coming. keep visiting us PlainLanguageAcademy.com for details and sign up for our newsletter.
We are looking forward to meeting you online, sharing skills, and learning about your interests.
Courses to take you forward
Our courses are designed to keep your clear communication skill development focused on the future. New fees are planned for future courses. Here are brief profiles of a few courses you can consider.
Clear Design Practices with Flora Gordon, (you can still sign up), explores the important role design plays in our communications and ways you can make design enhance your messages.
Plain Language 2.0 and Health Literacy, never been more important. Romina Marazzato Sparano shares her expertise. Available in English (now) and Spanish (soon).
Everyone is online and we need to be clear and meet their needs. Kate Harrison Whiteside brings her years of plain language use online experience to you in Creating Clear E-content.
New: Implementing Plain Language as a Strategic Priority with Sarah Slabbert and Nadja Green, Plain Language Institute, South Africa. The focus of plain language is often on specific documents or pieces of communication. Implementing plain language in a systematic manner in an organization is a different challenge for executives, compliance officers, communication managers, or customer relations. This course will empower you to make your organization truly customer- or citizen-centred.
See Courses for current course registration links
Three good reasons to work on legal editing
by Nicole Watkins Campbell
We have three good reasons to work on your legal writing and editing skills this year.
1. New year–new you.
New learning ALWAYS refreshes.
2. It will keep your mind busy during a potentially slow period.
Learning ways to sharpen your writing or editing skills is always useful, especially if you have time to devote to deep study, like during a slow period at work.
3. It will give you little breaks during a potentially busy period.
You can study at your own pace over about six weeks, even though it’s a four-week course. You can chat with other students or with me, your instructor, on issues that challenge you. In fact, I’ll help you on a thorny document, if you’d like. Learning is good for your brain and enhancing skills is good for your career.
Join me for A2 Editing for Plainer Legal Writing
Help us plan your future learning
The PLA team is so committed to the future of plain language, of enhanced learning, and of building connections. We are always looking for ways to improve plain language practices, skills, and projects. We keep broadening our program to meet new needs we are all facing. If you would like to see a new course, offer a new course, or access our coaching and consulting services, please get in touch. Contact email@example.com.
English, Français, Español and South African Collaborations
Academy becomes Academies
2021 will bring a new vision. More options. The PlainLanguageAcademy.com is now Plain Language Academies. We are adding new courses and new languages and new collaborations to meet your needs to learn in more ways.
More options, greater access
Our language options will soon include French (Français) and Spanish (Español) courses, with a new collaboration in South Africa focused on plain language strategy skills. We are growing so you can expand your learning and your horizons.
More Advanced courses to increase your options
We are here to help you build new skills for your plain language portfolio and future. Topics include online content, health, legal, and the science of plain language. Coming soon: strategic planning and document assessment.
Advanced courses to meet tomorrow's challenges
Register now for our fall offerings of Creating Clear E-content, Editing for Plainer Legal Writing, and Plain Language 2.0 and Health Literacy.
Cheryl Stephens is back with Science Supports Plain Language. Flora Gordon is delivering Clear Design Practices. Core courses are open now for registration.
Visit our Calendar for dates and links.
Académie du langage clair et simple
Meet our Français (French) team
Chantale Audet et Amélie Bourret, d'Autrement dit, une entreprise québécoise qui offre des services en langage clair et simple.
Bienvenue à l'Académie du langage clair et simple
Chantale Audet et Amélie Bourret, d’Autrement dit, ont développé un cours d’initiation au langage clairet simple, en français. Ce cours, Introduction au langage clair et simple, sera proposé à partir dudébut de l’année 2021.
Chantale Audet and Amélie Bourret, d'Autrement dit, a Quebec consulting firm that offers services in plain language, have developed an introductory French plain language course. The course, Introduction to Plain Language, will be offered at the beginning of 2021.
Academia de lenguaje claro
Meet our Claro (Spanish) Team
Romina Marazzato Sparano and team are working hard developing a set of courses to get the Academia de Lenguaje Claro ready for you in 2021.
Bienvenidos a la Academia de Lenguaje Claro
Romina Marazzato Sparano, languagecompass.com, (California) is teaming up with the best instructors in the Spanish-speaking world to offer Spanish plain language courses. They include introductory courses about clear writing and specialized courses on legal, corporate, health literacy, and academic writing. Academia launches in 2021.
Romina Marazzato Sparano, languagecompass.com (California) ha convocado a los mejores instructores del mundo hispanohablante para ofrecer formación en lenguaje claro en español, con cursos introductorios sobre la buena redacción y cursos especializados en redacción legal, corporativa,médica y académica. Se abrirá la inscripción a principios de 2021.
Discover what's happening at
Implementing Plain Language as a Strategic Priority
Meet our South African team
South Africa's Sarah Slabbert and Nadja Green of the Plain Language Institute are developing the new Implementing Plain Language as a Strategic Priority Advanced course (registration coming this fall; course in 2021). They will also be offering two of the existing PLA courses via their website.
Plain language actions often focus on specific documents or pieces of communication. Implementing plain language in a systematic manner in an organization is, however, a different challenge for executives, compliance officers and communication managers. The new Advanced course will empower you to make your organization truly customer- or citizen-centred.
Interested? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Shelley Egan, Egan Editing
Shelley Egan is an editor and proofreader
who specializes in fiction and copy editing.
Before starting her own business, eganediting.com,
she edited Hansard transcripts and taught ESL.
The COVID-19 virus has caused global upheaval and uncertainty. Misinformation is widespread, and messaging changes as more is learned about the virus. For accurate and timely information, Canadians have been urged to consult the Government of Canada (GC) website, as well as provincial websites.1
The Canada.ca Content Style Guide requires the use of plain language for GC web content and notes, “Using plain language … makes critical information accessible and readable for everyone.”2 The reference to “everyone” is interesting because almost half of Canadians have “literacy challenges.”3
Web content assessment
As an editor and former ESL instructor, I wondered about the accessibility of the GC text. The sample I examined appears on a COVID-19 FAQ page, under “Preventing coronavirus.”4
I used one of many online plain-language checklists to examine the text. Kate Harrison Whiteside (PlainLanguageAcademy.com) notes, “Checklists are important in covering the many components that make a message clear.”
Regarding language, the sample is in active voice, and there is just one idea per paragraph. However, some sentences have more than 20 words. The vocabulary could be simplified by replacing “dispose of” with “throw away,” “waste basket” with “garbage,” and “avoid touching” with “before you touch,” for example. The writing is formal rather than friendly, and the second person ("you") could be used more often to address the reader directly: “You can help reduce the risk of infection…” and “When you cough or sneeze.…” The sample’s Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is at the post-secondary level: 42.2 or “difficult to read.”
In terms of organization, the heading “Hygiene” is one of four subheads under the heading “Preventing coronavirus.” The heading is followed by the main purpose, and a bulleted list groups the information, which is all required. However, the structure of the second bullet point —an introductory-phrase stem followed by main clauses in sub-bullets—could confuse. The use of all lower case and the lack of end punctuation also make it difficult to identify sentences.
With respect to accessibility, the font size is easy to read, and the white space is ample. The left margin is justified, and the right is ragged. However, black text, rather than grey, would be easier to read.
My analysis of the GC sample text revealed that many Canadians would have difficulty accessing this important information on COVID-19 because the reading level is too high, despite the Canada.ca Content Style Guide requirement that “content intended for general audiences” should be at “grade 8 or lower.”5 User testing may not have been carried out on the text sample, and the need to post information quickly is understandable. However, user feedback could have resulted in adjustments to the language and to the organization, making it more “accessible and readable for everyone.”
Health Canada – Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
Canada.ca Content Style Guide–Plain Language (from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat)
(accessed April 14, 2020)
/canada-content-style-guide.html (accessed April 8, 2020)
/canada-content-style-guide.html (accessed April 1, 2020)
/prevention-risks.html#p(accessed April 8, 2020)
5. /canada-content-style-guide.html (accessed April 15, 2020)
Presentations make for a competitive challenge. We prepare them, watch them and try to remember them. So, what makes one stand out? The use of simple, strong, clear, relatable language and images that connect with audiences. All these are key components of plain language. Here are ideas on how to increase the use of clear visuals and the impact of your next presentation.
Integrating plain language guidelines
Marketingmag.com.au points out the weaknesses of presentations junky with charts, jargon and top heavy with text. Plain language guidelines can solve all these challenges. If you commit to clear language, concise messages and simple images that support your ideas, people will relate better and remember longer. Integrate plain language guidelines for your content and visuals to make your presentation memorable.
Presentation software is no longer exclusive. And, audiences come with high expectations. How can you meet them? In her article, ‘Choosing the right visuals’, Emma Bannister quotes research showing that 90% of what our brain processes is visual. A picture really can be worth a thousand words. The clear communication rules of simplicity apply here too.
Rule 1: make sure the visual supports the text.
Rule 2: design and present visuals that are audience-friendly.
Rule 3: use real settings, people and locations whenever you can.
Always ask, and preferably to a test audience, what viewers think of the content, the visuals, the presentation. Put people first and you’ll experience presentation power. After all, it is them we have to inspire.
Impressions that last
Presenters can use clear design and presentation guidelines to enhance engagement. Gov.uk demonstrates how they committed to using simple slides to achieve memorable presentations. Choose a presentation style that supports clear information and visuals, and stick to it. Consistency in visuals is another way to have an impact.
Making an outstanding presentation relies on clarity, simplicity and strong visual impact. Set plain language guidelines, involve a test audience for feedback and be prepared to make changes to meet their needs. If you can confidently say you kept it simple, clear and really connected with visuals, you are heading for presentation success with some help from plain language guidelines.
Want to learn more, take a PlainLanguageAcademy.com course.
Editors Canada Conference 2018, May 25-27, Saskatoon: Plain Language Stream
When Frances McDormand said the words “inclusion rider”, during her Academy Awards Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech, it meant so much more than the two words themselves. Plain language is most often practiced around the written word, presented on paper or online. But, when you mix in speaker, setting, audience and context, words can take on a much more dynamic meaning.
Defining "inclusion rider"
Not everyone would have a clear understanding of the legal implications of the words “inclusion rider”, but would use their familiarity with each term individually. McDormand herself is reported to have only recently become familiar with this contract option. But, in their legal sense, in the acting profession, here is how Wikipedia defines them:
“An inclusion rider or equity rider is a provision added to a contract of an actor to ensure that casting and production staff are more representative and meet a certain level of diversity…”
When a production company agrees to this rider, but doesn’t meet it, consequences can result. So, you take two plain words, mix in a legal connotation, and their meaning and impact can greatly change.
Plain speaking and presentation impacts
Inclusion researcher Dr. Stacy Smith presented data outlining the film industry’s inequalities in a TED Talk, highlighting the point that A-listers (top actors) can lead change with inclusion riders. That’s one group McDormand was addressing in her Oscar speech.
But, the impact of those two words were super-enhanced by three environmental conditions because McDormand had:
Combine plain language and clear design
On paper and online, we often don’t have that kind of influence. So, plain language is all the more important to get our messages across with the intended meaning, to the intended audience, generating the intended outcome. The next time you write content for a document, website or speech, consider the impact using plain language can have, especially if it is supported by clear visuals. The combined effect of plain language and clear design can be memorable. That's what we want in our communication.
PlainLanguageAcademy.com 2018 course line-up. Register now.
Clear Design and Plain Language Basics begin April 1.
Advanced: Editing for Plainer Legal Writing begins April 10.
There are simple solutions to testing
Ever wonder why a message or campaign just doesn't get the results from people you expect. Did you ask clients, readers, users for their input along the way? The most important aspect of the plain language process is testing the message with your readers or users. Yes, asking them what they think, feel, want.
However, both the process and resources—human, time and money—often mean organizations drop this stage. But, it delivers a brilliant return on your investment. Imagine if one concept, word or phrase was turning away clients, decreasing sales and taking up staff time answering the same questions over and over.
Here are five easy options for testing.
Find out more about the Academy's
1. Listen and learn
Listen carefully to the words your readers use when they describe your products or services. You will learn a lot about using 'their language' to gain understanding and really connect.
2. Everyone is a salesperson: let them sell
Get clients to explain o another person (even yourself), in their own words, what you offer. You can pick up some great clues as to how well your message matches your client's interpretation. And, you get an inside look at how people talk about you.
3. Use the simple Plus or Minus Checklist
Give a group of testers a section of your marketing materials, web content or product description. Then ask them to simply read through it and put a plus sign (+) beside info they like and understand and a minus sign (–) if they don't understand, like or get it. Now you know where to focus.
4. Get website users to perform a task
Watch how people get from the home page to the task page. How long it takes them? Which problems did they encounter? You will get great insights into how they navigate, what's important to them, and if your content and design are delivering the results you want and they need.
5. Start by asking clients what they really want
If you haven't done a client survey, focus group, or product test recently, now is the time to simply ask some key questions. What do you want from us? What are we doing that you like? What could we do better?
Your clients hold the key to your success. You ignore them at your peril. And, if you really want to create clear or plain language materials to connect with clients, you need to involve them along the way.
Here are some helpful sites
ProsWrite—A simple way to test your reader's response
UserResearch.gov.uk—Tips for testing your words
By Cheryl Stephens
Plain language projects, like any others, can be enhanced by clear documentation. Plain Language Academy program advisor and facilitator Cheryl Stephens shares four ways to track your project progress, for current and future needs. Thanks Cheryl.
For a freelance writer-editor, many jobs are short-run, although there may be repeat assignments with the same client. Early in your career, one tends to think of some jobs as quick and easy to do, so the engagement is not fully documented. In situations when you are working with a team member, you may not view it as your job because there is someone else who is supposed to do it.
Just remember, it is your career and your reputation at stake.
Create a case study
After a two-year project, I was asked to write an article about the project. It was then I wished I had made notes along the way and treated the writing project like a case study. In another instance, deemed an emergency by the client, I finished a short, written piece in one day. Later, there were many occasions when I wanted to use this piece as an example, but could not recall the details.
Many of us use checklists to make sure we cover off all the standard issues—in a written piece or an entire project. Checklists are good, but even better if you annotate them with some detail.
Write Interim report or memo to file
For project needs, an interim report is sent to the client or team, to bring everyone up to date on the status of the work-in-progress. A memo to file is used, but not circulated, to record some difficulty or reason to change the project's direction. Sometimes the memo to file is not kept in the project file, but in your own folder. A CMA (cover my ass) folder keeps information available, if you should ever need to CMA.
Track with originating documents
Of course you should always have a contract that sets out the expectations for each person involved, but sometimes an editing or writing project is started less formally. Then, the first memo should set out those parameters and it should be sent to the client. You can refer to it when things start to go sideways. Sometimes, veering sideways is unavoidable due to external developments, and you should record those changes and new decisions in a memo to file.
Learn more in Academy courses
You can get the full complement of skills needed for plain language project management by taking our six-course Foundation Program, or selecting Course 6: Plain Language Project, or its options (adding on coaching and consulting services). Registration is open. Visit Calendar for start dates.
Peers share top strategies for selling benefits
Despite the many successes I have experienced and positive stories from my colleagues, we are still challenged by those who don't understand the benefits of plain language. After many years in the field, sketicism is still a topic peers want to talk about and seek a solution to. A recent PlainLanguageAcademy.com Google Hangout focused on how to successfully sell plain language services to skeptics. Hosted by Cathy McPhalen, thINK Editing Inc., Edmonton, the group of peers shared their experiences and expertise on ways to convert clients to this new (to some) way of connecting with audiences, by simply being clear. The discussion was lively as options were explored.
"What is plain language?" "Isn't that dumbing it down?" "I don't want to lose my professional voice. That's what I'm paid for." "We've always done it this way. If it's not broke, don't fix it." Whether you are new to plain language or have been providing clear writing, editing, design and training services for some time, these protests may sound familiar. So, as a profession, what can we do to persuade skeptics clear communication is worth the investment? Here we share three proven approaches highlighted during the Hangout.
1. Educate your clients
It has never been more apparent that lack of education, or understanding, can lead to sad social, political, organizational and cultural situations. Integrating a training or orientation session into your plain language proposal or project is important to get organizational support. You may have to do it to get a project started. Integrate it and get help from a plain language trainer if you need one. But, expect positive results.
2. Health check on current practices
We are all somewhat resistant to change. It takes time, resources and commitment. Your client, internal or external, may say making all these changes will meet resistance and cost money. Here is a great way to turn this around.
Get permission to ask some questions to help you understand their situation. Here's what our NZ colleagues at ReWrite–How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit have to say about discovering what is really going on. Find out how long it takes to produce an email, a brochure, web updates or reports. How many people are involved? How many versions? Now, do a calculation: time it took x salaries = cost. Scary? Plain language can be the solution. The upfront investment in training can generate savings at many levels for the long run.
3. Words that work
We are plain language professionals all helping our clients use words more effectively. Are we doing our best? What words could we use to better explain—and sell—the benefits of plain language? Do you find yourself using negative terms like 'problems', 'challenges', 'issues'? The Hangout peers put their heads together to come up with words that positively promote plain language. What do you think?
For every problem there is a solution. And, the best way to find it is with the power of peers. If you have ideas or stories on success in persuading skeptics, please post a comment or share on social media using #plainlanguage or #plainlanguageacademy.
If you want to join or lead future PlainLanguageAcademy.com Hangouts, send your contact details and ideas to Kate at email@example.com.
Check out Academy Course 1: Plain Language Basics, designed to increase your understanding of plain language. It can help increase your options for persuading others. The course is open to registration throughout the year.
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