Lessons from Plain Language Office Hours, from the PLAIN Co-chair

Much about using plain language is easy. Well, it’s not necessarily quick, and there is a lot to remember. But the principles and the techniques are straightforward.

No surprise, the hardest part is people.

Last month I flew down to Atlanta to teach a class. I usually ask for samples, just so I can get a quick idea of what sort of thing they write and any common issues I can address. For example, sometimes if a boss is given to acronyms or jargon, employees will sometimes follow their boss’s example.

I taught the basic plain language class and held office hours in the afternoon.

Office hours are one to two hours in a conference room (or via webinar) where people can come (or call) in for exactly the amount of time they need. At my latest online office hour, I spent seven minutes explaining passive voice. The student left happy with her knowledge.

Since it’s more personal than teaching a class, I find office hours a good way to get to know the students better—and explore writing issues. And I can move from general principles and examples to individual writing samples; many people need to see plain language on their own writing before they understand it.

But the most useful phrase I have is, “Why are you writing this?”

It’s possible to be led astray in an edit. It’s possible to get carried away in sentence-level editing and take the piece in a direction the writer didn’t intend.

I’ve done it more times than I care to count.

So when I sit down with someone I start with the basic question: “Why are you writing this? Who’s it for?”

Because you can edit with every plain language technique in the book but you don’t center it on the reader, it’s still not plain language. And if you’re the editor, not the writer, then the original drafter probably has some good ideas. And if not, you can at least discuss these basic questions, and learn a lot.

By Katherine Spivey, Co-chair of the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN)