A Podcast about Plain Language

I’m no longer a podcast plebe! Click the Play button to hear my first-ever podcast. Of course, it’s about plain language (and my dog Gunther)! (If you’re previewing this post, click the post’s title to get to the podcast. Then click the Play button.)  

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A Pot Roast in Plain Language: Dinner Is Served

In my last two posts I offered a challenge to rewrite a recipe using some plain language techniques, and then I posted my version of the revised recipe. If you’ve paid attention, you’ve noticed that the second version is longer than the first–by over 100 words! So how could rewriting something using plain language make it longer? Isn’t plain language supposed to make something shorter? What gives? When Longer Is Better Writers who want to condense what they want to say often use the telegraphic style or load several steps on to one line of text. Our recipe did both. For the intended audience of a cookbook, experienced cooks, this shorthand presents no problem. But for new …

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The Pot Roast, Revisited

Yesterday I served up a recipe and asked you to slice and dice it to remove any embedded or hidden steps, as well as the telegraphic writing style, from the instructions. Now that you’ve marinated in the process for 24 hours, it’s time to take the dish out of the oven to see what we’ve cooked up. Here is the new set of instructions. I’ve given each step its own line, and I’ve added any words necessary to remove the telegraphic style. Look for the blue text to see what I’ve changed in these instructions. Slice the onions. Place the meat in the slow cooker. Place the onions on top of the meat. Combine the brown sugar, …

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Practice Your Procedure Writing with Pot Roast

I started cooking in my thirties, and I learned through trial by (actual) fire: My kitchen mistakes include several burnt dinners and one small kitchen fire. The kitchen fire was my fault, but I blame my burnt dinners on the people who write recipes. Here’s what I mean. Recipes use a certain writing style. This style is both telegraphic and obscure. Having blundered because of this style, I think rewriting recipes is excellent training for any plain-language writer. The Situation Consider the following recipe. It uses telegraphic style and what I call “embedded” and “hidden” steps—presumably to save space on the page. Experienced cooks use the recipe without incident. New …

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Plain Language Ironies: The Invisible Writer

Food for thought: In professional writing, the more clearly you write, the less readers notice the writing. Thoughts?

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Adopt the User’s Perspective

Rolling through Roswell, NM, I saw this ad for a local bank on a billboard: Lending Should Be Easy. We Make Sure It Is. The message contains a fundamental flaw. Can you see it? The message, which is aimed at people who might want a home loan—what the mortgage industry calls “borrowers”— says that lending should be easy. The problem? Borrowers, the sign’s target audience, don’t lend; banks do. Borrowers borrow. Taken literally, the sign says, “We make sure our part of the process (lending) is easy.” The ad writers probably meant to say, “Borrowing should be easy. We make sure it is.” For tech writers, writing about a product …

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A Task Is a Task Is a…Procedure?

The other day, I got to thinking about tasks and procedures. We had just remodeled our kitchen, and I was flipping through the user manual for our new dishwasher, looking for a section that walked me through the process of washing dishes from start to finish. But the user manual in my hands offered no such trajectory. Instead, I found the procedures I needed sprinkled under headings that used a mixture of imperative statements (“Start the dishwasher”) and feature names (“Child Lock”). I found the procedure for adjusting the top rack under the heading “Rack Accessories,” the procedure for unloading the dishwasher under the heading “Loading the Dishwasher,” and the …

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On Plain Language and the Death of Robin Williams

Full disclosure: I have clinical depression. The beast came upon me shortly after puberty; medication is the only thing that keeps me well. That said, I have learned to live with my illness the way anyone who has a chronic illness does. Depression is no welcome guest, but these days, it is less foe than fellow traveler. For that, I am grateful. Others, like Robin Williams, are not so lucky. His death broke my heart. Who could have predicted this? Events like this ignite the Internet. People tweet; people Like stuff on Facebook; people blog. And then, as the initial howls of disbelief recede into a pensive silence, people opine. …

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Ambiguous Antecedent

Being a technical writer and editor, I’m somewhat fond of style guides. The other day I found a good deal on the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2013, so I bought it and took it home. Flipping through the book later, I read this in the Foreword: “The first Associated Press Stylebook was 60 pages, bound together with staples. It marks its 60th year as a comprehensive reference manual that fills more than 500 pages and is published across an array of digital platforms, encompassing the collective wisdom of its readers….” There’s a subtle yet serious problem with the first pronoun and its antecedent. Before I explain …

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About the Samples in this Blog

Sometimes the best way to teach a new way of doing something is to show an old way and describe the differences. I use samples from technical manuals, marketing materials, user guides, and other forms of business communication to illustrate some of the problems in professional writing, and to describe how to apply plain language to solve those problems. I violate no copyright laws in using these samples, and I never identify the text’s author or the product’s name. I do not use these samples to call out writers for their shortcomings in plain-language usage; I am in no position to point fingers, as I still find said shortcomings in …

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