Thursday, March 21, 2013

Writing in Plain Language

Yesterday, while working in the Writing Center, I asked a colleague of mine what type of writing the students are doing in the Communication Disorders Class he has been assigned to as a Writing Fellow.

Thankfully, Greg is used to my nosy nature and humored me.

"Well, right now they are mostly writing in-depth but understandable descriptions of disorders and biology."

So I replied, "Like a case study?"

And he said, "No, easier than that."

To which I countered, "Like pamphlet writing?"

During this quick Q&A/banter, the Director of the Writing Center happened by. Upon hearing this Dr. Taylor replied, "So they write in a way that parents can understand," which of course made me think of audience awareness.

And suddenly I was transported to a doctor's office in Normal, Illinois six years ago.

When my third child was born he contracted Spinal Meningitis and was hospitalized for two weeks on IV therapy.  The medicine that is prescribed for SM has a side effect of mild to total hearing loss. Our doctor told us this rarely happened and she had never had a patient experience any loss of hearing due to the medication.

So, we didn't worry about it until my son wasn't making the cooing sounds that babies start making around three to four months of age.

By the age of one he hadn't made any sounds aside from crying, not even a "mama" or "dada." My husband and I made an appointment with our doctor, who referred us all about, and we finally ended up at the office of a Speech Pathologist/Hearing Specialist. James, our son, had a 70% hearing loss and would need extensive speech therapy as well as surgeries to repair abnormalities in his ear canal.

We were handed documents that appeared to have been written for scientists, we felt as if we might have needed a degree in biology to understand them. This was very frustrating for us, and why would a doctor's office hand us pamphlets that were most definitely not written for the general public? Did they not know their audience?

Flashback to the Writing Center and Dr. Taylor's comment. 

I found myself overjoyed to hear that these students were learning to write in such a way that the average person could understand the disorder afflicting their loved one.

So, then I asked Greg if he could understand the writing and he said, "Well, now that I've been in the class ... yes."

I was crushed. If Greg couldn't understand it, without having been in the class, then what hope is there for the average guy?  After all, Greg is a Smarty Pants.

The entire conversation kept bringing me back to audience awareness. 

All the tough research, brilliant discoveries, vital information basically means nothing if the people that are intended to read the documents cannot understand the material. Important information is lost.

I wonder why audience awareness is such a struggle, especially when people often know exactly who they are writing for. I'm sure the people that wrote the pamphlets for my son's Speech Pathologist knew they were writing for parents, but how could they have missed the boat so badly?

I believe that assumptions cause a lot of problems in terms of audience awareness. And you know the age old phrase about assumptions..... 

More than likely, a lot of people are writing with the idea of what the audience is in their heads. However, those ideas are heavily impacted by the type of person the writer is. The type of life they have led, the ethnic group they've grown up in, the discourse communities they interact with--all of these factors effect how a person assumes. 

The way in which someone can go beyond their assumptions and write in a way that truly addresses their audience is to get to know their audience. 


Researching an intended audience is pivotal in making sure that writing is clear and understandable. True, it isn't possible to write in such a way that every person gets every single point you're making, but it's possible to get fairly close to that goal. Researching is so much easier now, thanks to the internet, than it was years ago. 

Also, more than likely, people who are writing information in regards to Communication Disorders have communicated with real people before. I'm sure they didn't just drop out of the sky into a Dr.'s office or College Classroom. The trick for them is to take material that is difficult and translate it into the language of everyday people.

Greg told me that he thinks the students are getting very close to being able to do just that. The first set of papers were very technical, but as the semester has moved on, he has noticed students are able to write for a professional audience of scientific colleagues as well as the audience of everyday people. 

I have to admit that I had never really even thought about audience awareness outside of the writing classroom or the theater, but after having spoken to Greg about his class ... I see it everywhere.

It's as if we are all hyper-aware of our audiences, yet we have forgotten how to really speak to them.
Is there a cure? Or a quick fix to make us all truly communicate in ways that everyone understands?

Well, kinda.

The Center for Plain Language believes that audience awareness can be achieved through the use of plain language, which they define as information that people can find, understand, and use. 

As they describe on "What Is Plain Language?", this type of writing is "...information that is focused on readers. When you write in plain language, you create information that works well for the people who use it, whether online or in print."

And here's more from that link: 
Our measure of plain language is behavioral: Can the people who are the audience for the material quickly and easily
  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Act appropriately on that understanding
This means that the definition of “plain” depends on the audience. What is plain language for one audience may not be plain language for another audience.
Plain language is more than just short words and short sentences — although those are often two very important guidelines for plain language. When you create information in plain language, you also organize it logically for the audience. You consider how well the layout of your pages or screens works for the audience.
The Center for Plain Language website is a wonderful resource. There are many examples, checklists, guidelines, and even a blog to help people make sure their information is found, understood, and used.
If a writer is truly aware of their audience than she will make sure she writes in a manner in which the the audience can comprehend. Sometimes that means going easy on the bells and whistles, sometimes that means writing in a way that will not win you a major award for fancy pants vocabulary,  and sometimes it means sacrificing your ego and putting the needs of your reader first.

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