Thursday, 02 September 2021 12:00

Sizzling Summer Series recap: applying Plain Language for accessible, user-friendly texts

Written by Daphne Visser-Lees

Plain English

A small but enthusiastic group of language professionals gathered by Zoom to participate in this SENSE summer workshop. Speaking to us from South Africa, John opened with a quote from George Orwell: ‘The message is important, not the fancy language wrapped around it.’ And this set the tone for the workshop.

The group quickly established that we were all faced with similar problems. Even in this day and age, many writers continue to think that the more complex their writing is the better it is. Unfortunately in the process they often lose their natural (aka plain) voice completely. It is up to editors to render the authors’ messages readily understood at first reading by dispensing with obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence constructions.

Over the course of three interactive 50-minute sessions John led us through the application of Plain Language principles to real-life examples of poorly written English. We looked at adopting a reader focus, sentence length and complexity, noun strings, jargon, the use of the active and passive voice, and much, much more. John’s practical plain English approach included tips on ideal sentence and paragraph length, where and how to shorten sentences (a particularly useful section), and the value of vertical lists.

Whatever stage you are at in your editing career, I can thoroughly recommend taking part in this workshop. It not only provides concrete and useful tips for tackling text that at first sight seems impenetrable, but also gently encourages you to take an objective look at your own editing style. Although I like to think I keep up to date with modern English usage, I was somewhat surprised to realize how many archaic words I continue to use, but I am happy to adopt the suggested plain English alternatives.

Following the workshop, John sent us his PowerPoint presentation. Every single slide contains one or more useful nuggets of plain language advice. I will be keeping it easily accessible on my desktop to consult on those days when second language interference threatens to take the upper hand, or when dealing with a client who insists on using unnecessarily complex language. After all, as John reminded us, part of our job as editors is to educate the client by emphasizing that plain language gets the message across more effectively.

For more CPD opportunities, check out the SENSE Professional Development Days, on 18 and 25 September. This year's programme is all about horizontal knowledge-sharing and learning from your peers throughout your career. Topics include digital nomadism, the linguistics of wine, branding to money management, balancing multiple niches, collaborative translation, intercultural communication, the SENSE mentoring programme, and battling imposter’s syndrome. Tickets are €25 for members (non-members pay 40) and grant access to both days. Not a SENSE member? Click here to read about the benefits of joining the Society!

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