Having successfully persuaded politicians to back their cause, plain language advocates are now seriously intent on professionalising their practice by introducing standards of practice1http://www.iplfederation.org/development/.
There is no doubt that the public need for usable documents of a high standard is overwhelming, with many people hugely disadvantaged by their current poor standard. But as a sceptical researcher, I continue to wonder whether plain language practice in its present form (even if standardised) might inadvertently exacerbate the problem rather than provide a solution. I realise that such a suggestion will be dismissed by plain language advocates, as they have in the past, but my scepticism is based on evidence that advocates have chosen to ignore.
In 1985 we undertook some work on a major public document that had already been rewritten by a leading plain language advocate. The document had been meticulously written in accordance with the now familiar advice on writing and structuring documents found in plain language guidelines.2See the USA government guidelines as an authoritative example of the genre. Importantly, the plain language guidelines in the 1980s did not recommend routine testing, so to give us some baseline data, we tested the documents before commencing any work.

baseline measurement in information design

Baseline measurement in information design

Surprisingly, the document performed extremely poorly. Until that point we had been considering adopting the recommendations of plain language advocates as part of our own methods. But it was not a one-off. We were asked to redesign other documents that had similarly been ‘improved’ by plain language, and our testing found nearly all of them performing poorly. People were unable to use them appropriately: they could not find what they were looking for, or follow instructions correctly.

This was a serious problem. But there was more. Plain language advocates reported that when presented with a document written in plain language style, people felt confident in their capacity to understand it. Theses same researchers also reported, however, that this confidence was misplaced: people misinterpreted some of the text, quite unaware they were making mistakes.3Kelly, D. & Balmford, C. (1993) Simply Better: The case for clearer Life office documents. Life Insurance Federation of Australia.

This finding worried us, and we wrote about it in our Newsletter4Review of: Simply Better: The case for clearer life office documents by David St L. Kelly & Christopher J. Balmford. Life Insurance Federation of Australia (LIFA) Inc. 1993. Originally published in Communication News 6(6) and 7(1) Nov/Dec 93 and Jan/Feb 94. Reissued here and in the professional literature5Sless, David. “Better Information Presentation: Satisfying Consumers?” Visible Language 30, no. 3 (1996): 246–67..

I was concerned that the plain language style had at least three possible unacceptable consequences:

  1. Users confidently believing that they ‘understand’ the documents could make serious errors (many such errors were revealed in our testing).
  2. Users failing to make sense of a ‘plain language’ document might conclude that they must be stupid if they couldn’t understand it, and would, as a consequence, be less likely to complain about poor communication as they would feel it was their fault.
  3. It is quite common in our time to stamp plain language documents, certifying that they are written in plain language. The result is a perfect public relations outcome, suppressing the vital debate and criticism on which civic society depends, and on which much of the rhetoric of plain language advocates depend. An ironic twist!

My concern was, and still is, both practical and ethical. Just imagine how many unusable plain language documents are in circulation around the world. Millions of documents dressed in emperor’s clothes parading before us, and we remain silent.

In search of plain language standards

The time for standards in plain language practice are long overdue, but getting there may take longer than the proposed current self-imposed deadline of a set of Australian Standards by 2021. There are two major impediments.

1. The rhetoric blind spot

Advocates for plain language, particularly in the USA tradition, come from a strong tradition of rhetoric. Rhetoric is a subject deeply rooted in a limited view of how communication works between orators and audiences. It is a tradition full of rules and methods by which orators should marshal their arguments to persuade an audience to a point of view. It focuses on the skills and crafts of the orator, and assumes that these are the necessary skills and crafts for clear communication. But this is a limited, one-sided view of communication constructed in the belief that the power is with the speaker alone. The audience is viewed as a mere receiver.

Many communication theorists have come not only to question this view but to construct alternative models of the process: dialogical or conversational models that pay attention to the critical and constructive intellectual skills and social power exercised by all parties in a communication activity. Constructing meaning from text actively occurs in two distinct loci, that of the author and that of the reader.

The old habits of mind, however, persist in many ways. This is why so much of the substance of plain language guidelines for clear communication focuses on what are believed to be the ‘rules’ of language usage, the orator’s craft. The critical and interpretative crafts of the audience are not considered. Yet these crafts of communication practice by both parties are the bedrock on which good contemporary practice needs to be built. This is certainly true both in text writing and in its presentation, drawing on the established crafts of rhetoric and of typographic design. (As a minor footnote I would add one pleasing note on contemporary plain language practice: its recent embrace of the typographer’s craft through what it confusedly calls ‘information design’.)

But equally the readers’ crafts of creative interpretation, dissent, parody, irony, disbelief and resistance must be taken into account. This rich repertoire from centuries of practice by all parties is and remains our starting point.

Nonetheless, plain language advocates continue to refer to people as ‘audiences’. The notion of people as audiences inadvertently masks the richly diverse relationships that people have with documents. People are parents, students, workers, citizens, consumers and more, occupying many shifting or simultaneous positions. And it is from within these diverse positions and contexts that they view public documents. Indeed, if the research in communication practice has taught us anything it is that above all else, the context in which people use public documents determines how they will read them.

2. Overconfidence

The confident tradition of rhetoric, with its classical origins in authority (both literally and metaphorically) does not encourage either scepticism or humility, both necessary to advance communication to a high standard in our contemporary world. Such scepticism was anathema in the classical world view that still continues to find favour in the discourse on plain language. I had not realised the anathema until I was struck by the vehemence with which my critique of plain language in the 1990s was ‘refuted‘ by plain language critics, in much the same way that the church refuted Galileo in the 17th century, using good classical rhetorical arguments, persuasively delivered. I was particularly impressed by the work of Joe Kimble as a lifelong plain language advocate and a master rhetorician6Kimble, Joseph, WRITING FOR DOLLARS, WRITING TO PLEASE (Carolina Academic Press 2012).. I had only two related quibbles with his refutation: one about the evidence and the other about the history of plain language practice.

First, evidence: a vital body of evidence is missing. Alongside the many accumulated success stories of plain language, there is no equally well researched collection of plain language failures. I find it hard to believe that the ones we discovered were the only ones that exist. In any mature professional practice, such stories, such research findings, such limitations, are the prerequisite for progress. Without them we can only take the advocates’ claim at face value, just as we take the rainmaker and snake oil merchant at face value. Now, I don’t put plain language advocates and snake oil merchants in the same category. Indeed, I share their aim for a high standard of communication. But I suggest a more rigorous standard of proof than is still common among plain language advocates and practitioners. Other professions also rooted in classical traditions have had a long struggle with evidence as a necessary prerequisite; for example, despite massive evidence from observation and scientific experiment, surgeons delayed washing hands and sterilising instruments for decades. Plain language professionals too have strong social and ethical responsibilities and must act accordingly.

How many plain language public documents have been produced in the last 20 years that are wholly or partly unusable by their readers? How do you clear up the mess?

Second, history: it’s great to see testing being normalised in today’s plain language guidelines. This bodes well for the future of plain language practice. There is now the opportunity for the advocates to learn from their own mistakes. But this is relatively recent. It has taken a long time to turn a classical craft-based confidence—so certain of its claims—into a modern sceptical practice that seeks evidence for its claims. Of course, it is possible to assert, as some have, that testing and all the implications flowing from it have always existed in plain language practice. But they have not. The institutional changes reflected in guidelines began some time after our critique in the 1990s. Whether or not we played any part in that, I have no idea. Though I suspect that the vehemence of the refutation played its part in giving pause for thought and reflection.

However, it is premature to celebrate plain language practice, even though testing and standards are being introduced. Much more serious thought and research needs to go into the development of rigorous approaches to professional design methods and the choice and optimum timing of testing and testing methods. Also, the full integration of the traditional typographical crafts into plain language is still a work in progress.

Of course, those of us who have already travelled this route may be able to help—but that would require advocates to step outside their enclave into a wider helping world.

In the meantime, we will continue to advocate for the wide-scale application of our own somewhat more advanced evidence-based standards for good communication practice.