4 Plain Language
Speaker: Ruth Wilson, West Coast Editorial Associates
Jennifer Jordan: So I’d like to introduce Ruth Wilson from West coast Editorial Associates to present on plain language and SVM policies and processes.
Ruth Wilson: Thank you. So I drew the short straw. I know the blood sugars at your lowest now. So if you need coffee or you don’t want to just stand up and dance in front of me, that’s okay. I’m going to be moving a bit myself because I’m starting to feel that bit myself. So thank you. Thank you for having me today. I’m really pleased to be here. I’m going to focus on just one small piece of the puzzle of best practices and that’s plain language in your procedures and process. So I’m going to cover why plain language is important and what plain language is. And I know most of you probably think you do know what it is and I’m sure you do know some aspect of it, but for those of you who may not have worked or written or developed procedures within a plain language framework, I think that will be a useful quick definition for you.
Ruth Wilson: And for those of you who have worked within the plain language framework, it will confirm that it’s more than just short words and simple phrases. It’s a broader and deeper concept than that. And the third is just quickly how you can apply plain language to your procedures documents. Well that’s a two day workshop so we don’t have that. I’m going to give you three principles to walk away with and if you can think of those and apply those in your work, you’ll have taken a great leap forward. So that’s a lot to cover in 30 minutes. I’ll do my best to get you on time for the next break.
Ruth Wilson: So let’s start with why plain language is important. And I want to start that by telling you why it’s important to me because I believe that most of you, if not all of you, will relate to at least some of my own experiences because they’re human experiences. Plain language is something I’m passionate about and I have been my entire career. My passion was born, both from my choice of career as an editor and an instructor of editorial skills, and also by my personal life experiences as a homeowner, as a consumer of goods and services, as a parent, as a voter, as an engaged citizen. So you may not all be parents, but besides that you are all those things. First, you should know that I am in no way an expert on sexual violence policy and procedures, but I am a seasoned veteran in reading, deciphering, translating policies and procedures for others written by subject matter experts, or industry experts from all walks of life in all subject matters. So that’s my expertise, to take something that needs to be translated for somebody else. So I’m kind of the guinea pig. You got to get it by my eyes and my brain first. And that can some days be a real challenge.
Ruth Wilson: So an alarming number of documents that have landed on my desk over the years have been almost indecipherable. And my job is to turn them into something that people want to read, that understand it when they read it, and can put it to use when they need to. So that’s simply it. On the professional side, I got into the plain language biz before it was … well it was called that, but before it was a well known thing. I began my editorial career at Self-Counsel Press. It’s a local book publisher of legal and business books and I’m proud to say, and this is going to sound so simplistic now, but it was a key mandate of those books that they must be written in non-sexist language. That was sort of … that was it.
Ruth Wilson: All the other … everything we talk about now, but that was a big deal then and we had a lot of male readers and authors who didn’t like it. So that was kind of my grounding and the more jargon I edited because most of these books were written by … a lot of them were by lawyers, the more outspoken I became about accessible language because I got angry. Why should I, why should anyone reading these books, why should anyone trying to do anything in life, feel intimidated by being asked to do something that’s just a normal process or something they’re expected to do? And we’re the average person and why should I, you, we be afraid to ask professionals for more information because we’re afraid they’ll make us feel dumb? Now I know dumb is not a word we should even be using anymore, but I’m talking about how we are made to feel sometimes because of this intimidating process and I’m sure all of you have felt the same from time to time.
Ruth Wilson: Maybe it was when you were completing your income tax form and tried to look something up, the understanding, maybe it was when you were filling out a government form, maybe it was when you were trying to put together the bed from Ikea that you just bought. I suspect that most of you have felt that helpless, discouraged, and sometimes dumb and plain language aims to eliminate all of that. At worst or worse than any of putting together the Ikea bunk bed and having the top fall down first night is you can suffer life altering negative effects from not understanding. And obviously here, this is what you’re talking about. If your procedures for responding to sexualized violence aren’t clear, aren’t accessible, aren’t easy, people won’t report. And you all know this better than I in that particular, but there’s other things.
Ruth Wilson: There’s loss of funds. If a student doesn’t understand how to fill out the form for accessing funds. There are myriad examples we can all think of. I want to show you one of my real life experiences. So I’m a little older than most of you, certainly all the students. You students may remember this when your parents received this form. So once you have a child who turns 19, MSP sends you this for parents, this form that tells you that if they’re not a dependent anymore, what they have to do and if they remain a dependent because they’re going to school, they can stay on your plan and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So when my second child, because this was actually an improvement from my first child, turned 19 this was the first paragraph. First sentence. It’s a 41 word sentence by the way, if you want to count … was the first line in this letter that said nothing at the top.
Ruth Wilson: Didn’t have a title, didn’t say what it was about. It was Dear Parent Re: child’s name and this is how it started. And you can’t even know what it’s about. Not even close until that comma because the subject’s not at the front of the sentence. I don’t know if they’re talking about enrolling in the next yoga class. I don’t know what it is and so it went on from there. It just got worse. And as I say, this truly was an improvement from the three years prior with my first child, the second child this was, when at least this time, a ways down they tried to do some headings. And they had a bullet list. I’m an engaged reader. I’m a willing reader. Obviously I’m educated. I’m on the top end of being able to deal with this kind of stuff.
Ruth Wilson: I don’t have the barriers that many, many of your readers will have. The way I had to solve this, well actually, I made my husband do it, but he got on the phone because I was so angry. Got on the phone and went through paragraph by paragraph saying, “What does this mean? What do we have to do? How do we take care of our child?” That’s ridiculous. This is just normal life. Now I should mention actually the BC government and many of the governments have done … you don’t need to read this, but this is what that same information looks like now. It’s really clear. There’s headings, there’s questions. So I don’t want to tar the health services with that but, and there’s been huge improvements, but there’s more to be made.
Ruth Wilson: Here’s another example because if you think about plain language simply is short words, simple sentences. Okay, here’s a short one. No hard words to understand. Short sentence, tiny words. Do you know what it means? Do you know when to take those tablets? Here’s an example of where not thinking of plain language more broadly and deeply could harm you physically. I don’t know if I’m supposed to take three tablets all at once or spread through the day and when. So these are just some quick examples of real life experience.
Ruth Wilson: The type’s large, could say a lot of good about it. So that’s why all this matters to me. Okay? That’s where my passions come from and I’ve turned that into helping others get their message across. And that’s why I believe, and I know you believe why it should be important to you. It’s for all these same reasons. You too obviously have a vested interest in the same kinds of issues and today and through this forum and in your work, this particular issue of working with victims of sexualized violence and making sure your policies and procedures are clear and understandable.
Ruth Wilson: And I always like to say, and I believe this passionately, this comes down to one word and it’s respect. It’s respect for your reader. In your case, your readers if they’re the victims or the people who are trying to help them. But it’s respect in all aspects of life. If we’re asked to understand information, make it understandable. Don’t build walls. So that’s why it’s important. So quickly what plain language is. Well, quite simply quite plainly, plain language means information that is understandable. That’s it. So you might respond to that. Well I’ve read my university policy and I understand it or so won’t others too. Well why do you understand it? How do you understand it? Who’s going to be reading it? Can your readers, to define what that means, information is understandable. Can you readers find what they need?
Ruth Wilson: If I want to go back, when I read that, can I find what I need? No, I actually wasn’t sure what I needed when I started reading it because I didn’t know what it was about. So find what they need, understand what they find? No. We’re at strike two here with this one and act appropriately on the information. Well they didn’t expect that appropriate action was going to take another phone call that took some poor sod’s time and my time and costs more money and et cetera. So understandable. Find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately.
Ruth Wilson: So in short, plain language is an approach to communication and where does that begin? With the needs of the reader. This is the key point. It’s the needs of the reader. So how do you do that? How do you apply such an approach to the documents you want to create on sexualized procedures and process and your action plans? So as I said, I’m going to send you away with three principles on that for today’s takeaway. We’ve already mentioned this. I can’t stop saying this. Put the audience first, undebatable point. Put the audience first. Place the most important information first, which means organizing your document logically. You’re probably looking at that and say, “well, yeah duh”. Well, that doesn’t always happen. And use plain words. So I now want to say, I’m going to talk about a few examples and show you a few examples from the province, from your institutions.
Ruth Wilson: When I was asked to do this, we talked about approach and it was suggested to me that I just get on the internet and Google, just pick out randomly different institutions to see what I could find to give me a picture of where you’re all at. And that’s what I did. And I decided, well, let’s see how accessible everything is. So I did just really kind of basic Google like I don’t know anything. So, University X, sexualized violence processes, College Y sexualized violence processes. And that was a really interesting exercise. And I want to say, if you recognize your institution in anything I’m about to say or show, please understand, this is in no way meant to judge or compare or tell you who wins the gold medal and doesn’t. I’m here to help you.
Ruth Wilson: And I know this. I know from my own experience of working, writing plain language and teaching about plain language and editing for plain language, I know how difficult this can be. And it’s especially difficult when you’re having to start with a policy document that usually isn’t written as plain language for many reasons. And some of them valid for policy, but one of them is that perhaps your policies have had to be worked into a template all the university’s policies or the legal department tells you you have to have certain things. I understand that. And those are other issues that we can’t get in today, and they certainly can’t be resolved today, but that doesn’t mean that all your other documents have to be that way. So I really appreciate that this is an ongoing process and that everybody’s at a different level.
Ruth Wilson: So as I say, there’s no judgment here. So let’s talk about first principle number one, put the audience first and what does that mean? So the way to do this, when you’re thinking about your own processes, policies, procedures, action plans, is to really think about being in your reader’s shoes. Okay? Because you want to be writing to them and for them and not from you. And what that means with big institutions is, and what they’re often fall down in is they take time writing plainly why the policy has been written, where it came from, why it was mandated. The readers don’t care. They really don’t care. That’s not writing to the reader. You’ve got to say, “What does the reader want to know?” Okay. And it’s a mistake, that’s often made. And again, I think, it’s more difficult in larger organizations, and I’ve seen this in the corporate world as well.
Ruth Wilson: So when I nosed around several of your websites, I could see and I can hear from what you’re talking about today that for your procedures, for your process, for your action plans, I really see two separate audiences. You’ve got documents that you are going to want to be preparing I imagine for those people who are responding to reports or incidents of sexualized violence and then you’ve got the people who are reporting them, whether those be the victims or peers or support workers. And so very often you’re not talking about one document and that’s often a mistake that’s made too. Lisa, you showed those pages you’d done for police and yeah, that’s excellent. They’ve carved out on one topic different audiences for different needs. And so sometimes when organizations are starting to develop procedures, they forget that and they think they’re trying to do all in one. So it can be a long process because you’ve got to kind of carve out those audiences.
Ruth Wilson: In short, when you think about these documents, again try to put yourself in the reader’s shoes and answer their questions. What do I do to solve my problem? Where do I go? Where do I get more help? Do I have to tell the police? Not we wrote this procedure from our point of view. And for this topic, of course, you’re actually fortunate in a way because you have some idea of your demographics, age, who’s on campus, et cetera. Plain language can be more challenging when the audience is the general public. I mean, what does that even mean? At least you’ve carved out some of those demographics, but be that reader. To back up before we get to the actual writing a part of it too. When I was looking for these documents and what each university and college had had, you’ve got to think about accessibility from the macro level too, of even just finding them.
Ruth Wilson: Okay. So I found one institution that the policy and processes were mushed into one document. So it was hard to pull out. I was pretending to be Reader A and Reader B, and it was just all over the place. I found one with a broken link. I tried to go around it from several other ways, just could not get there, not available. So, okay, so now I’m being the reader. I want to find out how I’m going to report that I’ve been sexually violated. I can’t get there. So what am I going to do? I stop. That’s it. I walk away. I’m gone. You don’t have much time to get their attention especially if they are the victims. They’ve, Lisa and Anna talked about this. Their emotional state is like a wall and for plain language, you’ve got to think about language and readability levels and all of that but you’ve also got to think of emotional state.
Ruth Wilson: So if they can’t get to it fast and understand it fast, you’ve lost them. So that’s again, that’s a large price to pay. So I would say if each of you would go back to your institutions and do what I did, try to Google your documents as an outsider and if you run into any of those problems, that’s something to get your tech team to address right away. Fix the broken link or escalate your keyword searches or whatever that takes. I’m not an expert on that. I would just know that I needed to get it done.
Ruth Wilson: You want to place the most important information first. So let’s look at an exert of one document I found, which is highly truncated. This was a response procedure and you can see that was the title and right underneath was an opening paragraph and you can see that there was an attempt to talk to the reader with the, if you need support or assistance please go to. Okay. But that was tucked under a general statement statement about these procedures being enacted under a policy. Again, I don’t care. You care. If I’m on the other side, I care. I’ve got it because, and there’s reason to put all this information. Someone didn’t just make it up on a weekend and post it on the website, but looking for your process. I don’t care. I care that it’s there. And then the next, the first section was the disclaimer, but all the things that wouldn’t happen.
Ruth Wilson: The next one was a statement on concurrent process. The next one was scope. I had to turn, I can’t remember if it was the bottom of page two or three before I got close to what do I do? I’m gone. I’m gone. Reader’s gone. No help. And if you did nothing else, but think about the reader on this and put the most important, if you turned it on his head, I’m not saying that disclaimer doesn’t have to be there. Put it at the end. If you just turn that whole thing on its head and put the information about where to go for help first, that by itself would be a huge step. So that can be done quickly. That could be done tomorrow if you want to go back and, well I suppose you have to have permission but, just turn it around. That’s your problem.
Ruth Wilson: So the problem was here they mixed up the audiences, right? Because they’re sort of talking about someone who might need support, but maybe this is also about somebody who is trying to help somebody else. That message has helped. I read this like they’re talking to the policy makers and the bureaucrats not to the person who needs help. Just say, “We did this.” And I know that wasn’t the intent. Again, I go back to, I have huge respect for every step all of you have tried to take, but these are ways you can improve upon them.
Ruth Wilson: I found this one and you can’t read it very well but, and I did the highlight, but you can see right away, this is just a poster and right up top sexual assault assisting survivors, a resource for students and staff. That’s me. I’m reading. Right? I’m trying to learn what I’m supposed to do to respond to people and then nice bright colors. And then if you can’t read them, those two heads are what is sexual assault and how to assist and then bang, bang, call this, do this, do this, more help here. One page. I’m with you and where to get more information. So if you have to dig into some of those other longer documents. So I thought that was a very good effort. It’s clear what the document is for, who it’s for, and what’s in it.
Ruth Wilson: Okay. Principle three, use plain words. Again, this could be a two day workshop. I find one of the ironies that come out of the mouths of critics of plain language and they still are out there even after … I was actually comparing notes, [inaudible 00:23:26] are exactly the same number of years and when we were asked if we remembered the little Walkmans I was saying, “I remember eight track.” So I’ve been doing this for awhile, but one of the ironies I’ve heard over the years, and I still hear it, that plain language is just dumbing down the language. It’s Dick and Jane language. People are smarter than that. They’re intelligent. Well, yes, but it’s because they’re intelligent that we do this because we respect their time and what the information they need to do.
Ruth Wilson: There’s really nothing further from the truth because think again, when do you feel dumb? Again, a word I don’t like to use, but it’s, when do I feel dumb? When I can’t understand something that I’m supposed to understand? I’m sitting there, “Why don’t I understand this? I should be able to understand this.” Plain language, it is true, strips texts out of complexity. It is not true that it loses style that it strips it of style. It engages the reader because the style is clarity. So quickly in using plain words. Avoid jargon. If you’re in universities anywhere, I’ve worked with a lot of doctors, I’ve edited engineers. Their life is full of jargon. That’s not unusual and if you’re writing for a doctor to a doctor, an engineer to an engineer, jargon’s fine. That’s their shorthand, but that’s the only time it really should be acceptable and always short is better than long.
Ruth Wilson: You saw that long sentence of 41 words. I always think when I was a university student, when you wrote your essay and it was supposed to be X number of words and you figured out how many words in the end and that was before you could do a click of a button to count your words and you figured out and you thought, “Damn, I’m 50 words short.” So you do things like say instead of now you put at this point in time. You all know those tricks, right? Okay, now you’ve got to take them all out of your life. No professor is going to tell you the plain language document was too short. You get to not worry about that anymore and you watch out for these things that just become lazy language.
Ruth Wilson: There are various different options available to you. Various different, okay, you have three choices. So these are all little things. So avoid anything long. Avoid long paragraphs, avoid long documents, avoid long sentences, avoid long words. Just avoid long. Use lists. We live in a world of decreasing attention span because of our … Right? And of course all of you have your documents on your website, people scan, you probably know all this, people scan websites. So lists work well. Our eyes move differently. We’re looking for the keys to find us to get the information we want. So use headings to point the way. Use active voice and speak to, write to the reader. You can get help. We will help you. You can call this number. That humanizes your reader.
Ruth Wilson: Also, I also noticed on a few of the websites, and I didn’t look at every university and college, but several have alongside the information, short videos and I was really impressed with that for a lot of reasons. One, because it increases accessibility. So for someone who’s not either as comfortable reading all the words, they can hear it, they can see it, they can interact with it. If they’re more of a visual learner, those were great. But I found it kind of comical in a way, I shouldn’t use the word comical because that sounds judging, and I’m not judging, but they were so effective. Some of those videos were better than the words because the videos had little cartoon people were reading out loud, very succinct messages. They had headings, where do I get help? But that heading wasn’t in the document. Who should I call? Do I have to tell the police? But those questions weren’t in the document. So that’s another test you can do. Those of you who are from institutions that have some of those videos, go look at those documents, turn them into the text if they’re better than the text because they were really good.
Ruth Wilson: And I do want to finish with one so as I was going around, I want to show you one that I thought really did work really well, and I was actually blown away when I found the policy, I clicked on it. It’s UBC. I mean, I’m speaking highly of it, so I can see that. This is the big first page on my screen. I’ve got a big screen on my desk and it comes up. We believe you. And I went, “Whoa, Whoa.” What a great message in this time of Me Too. The first thing, I mean, think about if I’m coming at this looking for help and the first thing in these big lists we believe you, I’m going to read on. And I immediately just felt, wow, okay, what’s next?
Ruth Wilson: I can keep going. And then, the light’s a bit bad, but on the left hand side there, Oh, and then it says a safe place for students, faculty and staff. Wow. And then, if you have experienced sexual assault or other forms of sexual violence, it is not your fault. And then it gives a little information and the boxes, just want to talk? So in that one page, I’m being listened to. I know where to go for more help. I’m being validated on one page. I just sat there and stared at that for about five minutes. I was so impressed. And then you scroll down just one page and then, have you experienced a recent sexual assault, your safety comes first and then bang one, two, three. Find a safe place, go to the hospital, call us. And, it went down from there.
Ruth Wilson: It’s very well done. I don’t know if people are from UBC here but well done. Good job. So I hope that helps. As you’ve all been mentioning since I’ve been here that you should be working together, so I think you should just go to UBC’s website and steal it all and I’m sorry I missed the students that were speaking just before I arrived before lunch because I understand a lot of you were advocating for plain language and that’s terrific. Keep doing so because this is … Keep demanding that respect. I would have liked to have been here to hear that, but I was having a plain language crisis trying to park my car and pay for the parking because I didn’t … It’s a sad story but I didn’t have my credit card and all the machines said well if you don’t have credit card you can pay cash but to do that, go inside.
Ruth Wilson: I was in the middle of the downstairs parking lot and I just stood there. Where? Anyway I resolved it with the help of a very kind person, two or three kind people. But I thought, isn’t this ironic? Go inside. Plain, clear, big, but … so thank you very much. We don’t have time for questions and answers. I am staying for the networking reception. So if there are any of you who’d like to introduce yourself, if you have any other questions, I’m very happy to be here and thank you again.
Jennifer Jordan: Thank you very much, Ruth. Just wait one moment as I walk and everybody just hold on one moment because Anna Elaine is going to talk about what things will look like after the break. So thanks again, Ruth.
Anna Elaine: All right. Yeah, thank you very much. I’m very excited about a lot of the information that was in that so just before we go over to break, I do just want to remind everybody once again that there is a counselor that is available for anyone who would like to speak to her. She’ll be available. We also do have the decompression space so please feel free to go there if you just want to take some time or anything either during the break or if you needs some additional time before coming back to the session. No worries at all. And also please always feel free to leave at any point if you feel that you need to. We want to respect everybody’s boundaries and if you feel that you need to leave, it’s all up to you. You know your boundaries best. All right, so we’re going to take a 10 minute break, so be back in 10 minutes please. We are going to be rearranging the tables because we will be having five different sections where we will be moving around in five different groups. So when you come back, we’ll be getting into those. Go use the bathroom, do whatever you need to do now. Thank you.