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Saturday, July 6, 2013

20 Strategies for Writing in Plain Language | How to meet the needs of your readers

Editor Mark Nichol provides a clear, concise description of plain-language strategies in this blog article at Daily Writing Tips. He begins:
The increasing popularity of plain language, the concept of writing clear, simple prose, is making it easier for people to understand legal documents and government forms. It’s also recommended for any print or online publications intended to provide information or explain a process — and writers should consider its utility for any content context. ...
For more information and advice, visit my plain-language website: Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide:. How to write clearly to meet the needs of your readers--and your needs too! I begin:
Plain English is an approach to writing that concentrates on the needs of your readers. This clear writing approach is often called plain language because of its international value and use in other languages. It is ideal for people who write to and for clients, customers, employees, organization members, ratepayers, students and taxpayers. It helps us write for people who read at all levels of time, interest, education and literacy. It also benefits readers with limited English proficiency or learning disabilities.
My guide discusses plain language in these seven steps:
  • Focusing on your reader and purpose
  • Organizing your ideas
  • Writing clear, effective paragraphs
  • Writing clear, simple sentences
  • Using suitable words
  • Creating an enticing design
  • Testing for clarity.
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Nichol's article is featured today, July 6, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

What’s wrong with the passive voice? | The Stroppy Editor

Despite the title, this blog article by a London writer also discusses the differences between passive and active voice, reasons to be passive, and "Bad passives and the indirect way to fix them."

Blogger Tom Freeman begins:
Michael Gove, the [British] Education Secretary, has joined the Campaign Against the Passive Voice. He follows in the footsteps of Strunk and White (whose section on the passive voice, while more nuanced than many people recognise, is calamitously misleading) and of George Orwell (who complained about the passive while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint).
The campaign isn't wholly wrong, but it goes too far and it doesn’t properly understand the problem. The passive voice is often better than the active, and its overuse is usually a symptom of something else.
Freeman concludes:
There are times when the difference between the active and passive doesn’t matter much. If you’ve been staring at two versions of a sentence for a while, trying to decide which is better, chances are you’ll be fine either way. Pick one and get on with life. 
For more advice, here are my related entries in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual:
active vs. passive verbs A verb is active when it shows the subject acts or does something: The clown caught the bouquetThe board approved the contract unanimously. A verb is passive when the subject of the verb is acted upon: The bouquet was caught by the clown. The contract was passed unanimously by the board.
The active voice is simpler, more direct and more forceful than the passive voice. Passive voice may be acceptable when the person or thing receiving the action is more important than the person or thing doing the acting.
Also, avoid shifts between active and passive within a sentence. Change: The new website manager majored in English and was employed by the city as an editor. To: The new manager majored in English and worked at the city as an editor. See headlines.
Rita Mae Brown, Starting from Scratch, 1988: "Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. University term papers bleed with the passive voice. It seems to be the accepted style of Academia. Dump it."
headlines, headings ...
For headlines, state or imply a complete sentence in the present tense. Avoid using passive voice. Omit most "helping" and "to be" verbs: Road improvements planned for Belvidere Avenue Southwest instead of Road improvements are planned for Belvidere Avenue Southwest. Cut articles (a, an, the): School district schedules open house on proposed curriculum changes instead of School district has scheduled an open house on the proposed curriculum changes. Infinitive is preferred to future tense: City Council to consider budget recommendation instead of The City Council will consider the budget recommendation. In headlines with more than one line, avoid separating verbs of more than one word, modifiers from the words they modify and prepositions from the phrases they introduce. ...
I also discuss passive voice in the Writing clear, simple sentences section of Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide:
Use active voice verbs--unless there's a strong reason to use passive
Putting the "doer"--the person or thing doing the action in a sentence--in front of its verb will usually ensure the verb is in the active voice. The "doer" in active sentences is usually named or described at the start of the sentence. The active is more direct; it helps drive home the message. Active verbs usually suggest that someone is doing something: collapse, confuse, jumpThe passive can obscure the message.
Active voice is usually more concise than passive voice. Sentences that are passive instead of active usually contain forms of the verb to beam, are, is, was, were, be, been, being. And those verbs usually come before verbs than end in -ed or -encarried, taken.
  • Instead of:  
The fund-raising campaign was approved by the Executive Committee.
  • Use:
The Executive Committee approved the fund-raising campaign.
  • Instead of:
Complaints are taken seriously by the Parks Department.
  • Use:
The Parks Department takes complaints seriously.
Passive voice may be suitable for one of these reasons: when you don't know the doer or actor, when the doer or actor is unimportant to the point you're making, or when the emphasis is clearly not on the actor but the acted upon. 
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Freeman's blog entry is featured today, July 6, in my daily online paper,
Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free emails subscription.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Call to Artists for Plain Language Day | International Plain Language Day

Celebration planners are seeking artists to create artwork for International Plain Language Day, Oct. 13, 2013. Says the Call to Artists:
Right to Understand graphicExpress the desire for clarity through plain language
People who advocate for plain language see beauty and sophistication in simplicity, clarity, and focus. They always try to see reality from the point of view of the other person in a conversation. They want to upset the status quo for the benefit of the people. We are passionate about plain language.

See the Call to Artists for the two artwork themes, selection criteria, and the jury panel. Entries are due Aug. 31, 2013. 

International Plain Language Day is celebrated around the world to mark the progress made in adopting plain language in government, health, business, and law. 


The 2013 celebration will be centered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, during the closing session of PLAIN 2013. The ninth conference and 20th anniversary of Plain Language Association InterNational runs from Oct. 10-13.

Cursing: An Editorial Style Guide | I Miss You When I Blink

I was laughing out loud while reading this blog post from I Miss You When I Blink

I can't do the column justice by excerpting from its 10 tips, even their titles. Read it instead. But here's Mary Laura's Philpott's concluding bit of advice:
10. Use your manners.
If you follow none of the other guidelines, observe this one: respect basic rules of civility. If you're in a setting where you know the people don't like cursing, don't do it. Unless you're in a setting where you know the people don't like it, but you also know the people hate you and are just pretending to like you, and they think you're so stupid that you don’t know that they hate you, like you can't read body language or are completely lacking in social intelligence. In that case, play along nicely and with extreme restraint until it’s time to leave, then casually toss this over your shoulder as you walk out the door:
“Later, bitches.”
And wink.
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Philpott's blog post, from April 2012, is featured today, July 2, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

Even Thomas Jefferson favored independence from gobbledygook

I love this--a quotation from 1821 by the author of the Declaration of Independence. In Chapter 4 of his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson advocated for use of "plain" words in writing:
[I]t would be useful . . . to reform the style of [statutes] which, from their verbosity, their endless tautologies, . . . and their multiplied efforts at certainty, by saids and aforesaids, by ors and by ands, to make them more plain, do really render them more perplexed and incomprehensible, not only to common readers, but to the lawyers themselves.
Another reason to celebrate Jefferson, his belief in democracy, the power of the people, and the July 4th birth of the United States. 

Jefferson wrote in 1821 about language in federal statutes and other government documents, as noted in this article from Legal Writer Editor.

But I think it's significant he wrote about the comprehension of "common readers," as well as lawyers. Since Jefferson believed 192 years ago that legal documents should use plain language, surely he believed that nonlegal documents also should be easy to understand. 

Unfortunately, that is still not the case in 2013 for far too many documents--legal and otherwise. 

Fortunately, important organizations are advocating for use of clear, concise writing and design in all fields--from the law and government to health care and medicine, from education to engineering, from corporations to nonprofits. 

For an annotated list of government agencies and other organizations providing advice and information on plain language, check out Other plain-language resources in Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

To find "plain" words for all types of writing, also check out Garbl's Concise Writing Guide. This free guide provides alternatives to overstated, pompous words; wordy, bureaucratic phrases; and verbose, sometimes amusing redundant phrases:
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The article featuring Jefferson's quotation--"Plain-English Reform Transcends Ideology"--is featured today, July 2, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Questions and Answers, July 2013 | Chicago Style Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style has published its July Q&A--questions about writing from readers and answers to the questions by Chicago staff. I get a monthly email message from Chicago whenever they appear.

Here are the excerpts from the latest questions and some answers:

Q. The title page identifies the authors as Lyotard and Th├ębaud, but the Library of Congress CIP data lists only Lyotard. How should I cite this work in my text and bibliography and why?
Q. I've noticed that many newspapers and magazines still avoid splitting verb phrases. Does CMOS have a position on this issue? A. CMOS does: please see sections 5.102 and 5.168. The idea that verb phrases cannot be split in this way is quite mistaken, and there is no reason to arbitrarily avoid it.
Q. Is “The clothes need washed” an incorrect or incomplete sentence?
Q. All of this plus installation, at no cost to you. Is the comma necessary here?
Q. For proofreading on paper, how does Chicago recommend indicating that there should be one space between two words rather than two?
Q. Which punctuation is correct for the following title: “Transitioning to More-Rigorous Assessments” or “Transitioning to More Rigorous Assessments”?
Q. In a recent New York Times online article, I noticed several instances where that was dropped in cases of indirect address. It seems to be common practice, but is it correct? A. Newspaper writers make a habit of dropping an optional that to conserve space, and if the sentence is readable, there’s nothing wrong with omitting it. Sometimes it is needed, however, to keep the reader from stumbling: She maintained the haircut on a strict budget was optional. He allowed children in his swimming pool were a nuisance.
Q. In formal writing, I have been shown by my coworkers that U.S. is the way to write United States. However, I was always told that very few abbreviation are to be used in formal writing, and the abbreviation U.S. should never be used in replacement of United States when writing federal documents.
Q. What is Chicago’s style for cyber plus noun (cyber attack, cyber security, cyber crime, cyber defenses, cyber warfare, etc.)?
Q. What is the CMOS position on how to reference the titles of posters (such as those presented at professional conferences) in the body of a document? Should the title be in quotation marks, italicized, or something else?
Q. If you are referring to a specific war, like World War II, do you capitalize the word war even when you’re not attaching the full title, or leave it uncapitalized? A. If you type war into the Search box or look under war in the index, you'll find examples at CMOS 8.112: World War I, Vietnam War, the war, the two world wars, etc.
Q. Why is it so hard to find things in CMOSA. It must be just one of those things. If only there were a search box, or an index . . .

Monday, July 1, 2013

International conference features latest advice on clear, concise communications


PLAIN conference logo
Here's a chance to immerse yourself for several days in informative, useful and interactive discussions about the best ways to communicate clearly and concisely with your readers. Check out PLAIN 2013!

It's the 20th-anniversary conference of the Plain Language Association InterNational (or PLAIN), scheduled for Oct. 10-13 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I've been studying the schedule for the conference, and it promises to live up to its theme: "Plain Language Advances: new skills, knowledge, research and best practices."

The conference will use presentations, workshops, round robins, authors' tables, posters and displays to share the latest on plain-language research, practice, integration, and design. I'm even scheduled to speak at a couple of workshops. 

Conference planners have confirmed presenters from Canada, the United States, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Britain. People are likely to attend from all those countries. 

Participants will be able to choose from a range of topics and formats to share, learn, and build their plain-language knowledge base and network.

The program presentations will cover strategies and best practices on accessibility, usability, ethics, and connecting with audiences. Presenters will share plain-language tips on promoting plain language to clients, new technology, writing legal information, document design, knowledge mobilization, global English, and the profession's future direction. 

Updates on the activities of plain-language professionals in government, health, financial, legal, and educational fields will give participants the opportunity to gain sector insights.

Here's more information on the Plain Language Association InterNational. Low-cost membership in PLAIN reduces the conference fee (through August). I've been a board member, website manager, and email discussion group moderator for PLAIN.

And here's more information on plain language, aka plain English: Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

May or might: what’s the difference?

One of my online writing references, Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual, includes an item about using may and might:
may, might Both words suggest possibility. One meaning of may suggests a likelihood that something will happen. It may rain. Might suggests a remote possibility or a possibility that once existed but no longer does: I might as well be the man in the moon. I might have married her if our circumstances had been different. Consider using might if using may could imply permission instead of possibility: The graduating seniors might skip classes on Friday
That entry also links to these related terms:
can, could Use can to express certainty or willingness in being able to do something. Use could when there's less certainty or when doing something depends on something else.
can, may Commonly confused. Use can when writing about capability, physical or mental ability, or the power to do something. Use may when writing about authorization or permission and sometimes possibility: They can finish the report by November. May we have an extra month to finish the report? You may lead the horse to water, but you can't make it drink. May is almost always the correct word to use in a question. 
could of, may of, might of, must of, should of, would of Frequent misspellings of could have or could've, may have, might have or might've, must have, should have or should've, and would have or would've. Also, avoid using those awkward contractions in writing. 
Prompting my blog post today is a recent entry in the OxfordWords.blog of OxfordDictionaries.comMay or might: what’s the difference?

It covers the distinctions between may and might in much more detail. And it's useful advice. But I must say that my eyes started glazing over before I finished reading the blog item. 
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An Oxford article on can and and could--with a link to its may and might article--is featured today, July 1, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.


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