The job advertisement contained a challenge I couldn’t ignore. Translate difficult Occupational Health and Safety (now Work Health and Safety in Australia) terms and definitions into Plain English. My OHS qualification helped me understand the terms. My experience as scriptwriter helped with the Plain English. I got the job and the title of Plain English Writer. But my Plain English learning curve had just begun.
I loved the discipline of translating complex text into language particular learner groups could understand. People with English as an additional language, or those with generally low literacy. I was motivated. This was training material for High Risk Work licences. Life and death. The material helped men and women get a job. Otherwise it increased their qualifications. This was dangerous work and to help reduce or eliminate risks was satisfying. I thought I was doing a good job. I had a wakeup call.
A co-worker had thirty years’ experience working with this learner group. We were working together one day. I remember feeling pretty confident with my work. “They won’t understand that,” he said.
The takeaways from this jolt were numerous. But, mainly, I learnt what Plain English really means. I needed to lift my game. I did.
But, some will say, that’s for low literacy learners. High level learners need high level language. I disagree. And someone else with far more authority than me does too. More on that shortly.
Fast-forward a couple of years and I’m working in a company that deals with high level learners. I’m not writing resources but I’m dealing with them every day. I need to decide which content is good for video. Often, it’s a challenge. Even with a team of highly qualified and experienced editors, text-based resources are going out to learners with language that is causing cognitive overload. This means the actual learning is seen as if ‘through a glass darkly’. Why? What’s happening?
Usually, the writer thinks they need to sound ‘academic’ for it to be good writing.
In his classic book, ‘On Writing Well’ (Collins, 2006) master writing teacher Willian Zinsser has this to say…
“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.” (On Writing Well, Chapter 2, page 6, Zinsser, 2006).
The training industry is not immune. We can learn a lot from the likes of Zinsser.
How do we know if we are ‘hitting the mark’ when writing our training resources? I admit to being uneasy with using automated tools to analyse readability. But they soon became my friend. The training resources was for community counsellors. People whose job was to sift through the life problems of others. The resource was equal in readability to the Harvard Law Review.
Tools for measuring readability are widely available. Users of Microsoft Word have the Flesch-Kincaid Reading ease tool at their fingertips. There are also online tools that give a readability score. My Flesch-Kincaid target score is 90-100 (5th Grade, very easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student). If the subject matter involves essential complex terms it might be in the 80-90 range (6th grade, easy to read. Conversational English for consumers). To make better sense of this see the Wikipedia link at the end.
Complex language has a place. It’s in publications like the Harvard Law Review. It does not belong in training.
How do we simplify our language? Here are a few general principles.
- Eliminate most adjectives and adverbs.
- Eliminate jargon. Only use jargon essential for the current piece of learning.
- Keep sentence length to a maximum of fifteen words (as much as possible).
- Write in a conversational tone. Trying reading the text out loud to test this.
- Use words with fewer syllables. Consider replacing single words with multiple syllables with multiple words that have a single syllable.
- Write a rough draft then cut it back.
- Be super-clear, yourself, on the learning objective and stick to it.
I recommend that anyone with responsibility for writing and/or editing training text, for any medium, read…
On Writing Well – The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
William Zinsser, Collins 2006)
For more on Flesch-Kincaid go to: