By Alan Houser | STC Fellow
I recently listened to a podcast about jury instructions. These instructions guide the jury in how to properly evaluate testimony and evidence presented during the trial, and how to deliberate to reach a verdict.
Unfortunately, these instructions are often so full of legal jargon and obscure language that jurors find them confusing, not enlightening. Given the importance of the juror’s task, some jurisdictions are rewriting jury instructions in plain language. The results have been encouraging.
The podcast highlighted the importance of clear written communication, in audience-appropriate language, to support readers in performing tasks or successfully using products and services. Mastery at the CPTC Foundation level requires knowledge and understanding of concepts and techniques for developing clear, effective written communication, that also meets requirements for global audiences and translations. This article details some of the principles you must know to achieve the CPTC Foundation certification.
Guidelines for Writing Plain Sentences
Clear writing starts with clear, plain sentences. Richard Johnson-Sheehan provides eight guidelines for writing plain sentences. I often use these guidelines myself when writing or editing. You can use these guidelines to untangle opaque writing and turn it into plain, clear prose.
- Make the subject of the sentence what the sentence is about. Readers should be able to identify the subject of the sentence. Opaque prose often hides the subject in an object or subordinate clause.
- Use the “Doer” as the subject of the sentence. Would a sports writer ever write “The ball was thrown by her?” The actor should generally be the subject of a sentence.
- Use a verb to express the action, or what the doer is doing.Action verbs form the basis for clear, direct sentences. Sentences based on forms of to be (e.g., is, are, were) are generally more verbose and less clear.
- Put the subject of the sentence early in the sentence. Don’t defer the subject with lengthy subordinate clauses. Clear, direct sentences will put the subject early in the sentence.
- Eliminate nominalizations. Nominalizations are verbs turned into nouns, and are especially common in business and technical jargon. For example, decontamination (n) vs. decontaminate (v). Nominalizations result in longer sentences, with weaker verbs than equivalent sentences written with the original verb forms.
Johnson-Sheehan notes that first drafts are often filled with nominalizations, because we tend to think in terms of people, places, and things (all nouns). But on subsequent drafts, pay attention to nominalizations and convert them to action verbs.
- Eliminate excessive prepositional phrases. By specifying relationships between objects, prepositional phrases are invaluable in technical communication. However, multiple consecutive prepositional phrases quickly turn plain language into confusion.
Writers often use too many prepositional phrases, especially when writing highly technical material. Untangle your strings of prepositional phrases to turn ambiguous, confusing prose into clear technical communication.
- Eliminate redundancy in sentences. Can an item be singularly unique? Can a person be unexpectedly surprised? Can a resource be thoroughly depleted?
In each case, the adverbs singularly, unexpectedly, or thoroughly provide no additional or nuanced meaning over the single adjective. It is sufficient to say that an item is unique, a person is surprised, and a resource is depleted.
- Write sentences that are “breathing length.” How long should a sentence be? A good writer will vary sentence length, although long sentences are more likely to confuse the reader. Johnson-Sheehan recommends that sentences be “breathing length.” If you read a sentence out loud, and need to pause to inhale before you finish the sentence, the sentence may be too long.
Effective Writing Techniques for Websites
If you are writing for a website, plain language is especially critical. Websites bring their own challenges over other publishing formats. Websites present enhancements for our readers (navigation, search, linking) and challenges (constrained screen size, scrolling) compared to print. Johnson-Sheehan recommends the following techniques for website writing:
- Keep sentences short. While “breathing length” may be a reasonable guideline for sentences in print publications, sentences on websites should be shorter, on average, than sentences written for print publication.
- Keep paragraphs short. Paragraphs on websites should typically contain only a few sentences, to support readers who scan the website content to find the information they seek.
- Links should reflect titles. When writing links, be sure the text of the link matches the title of the target page.
- Create a consistent tone. The tone, or style, of the website should match the content. An e-commerce website should probably use a persuasive style. A medical website might use a plain style when describing symptoms, but use a persuasive style when encouraging readers to see a doctor.
Website Writing for Global Audiences
Because a website visitor can come from anywhere on the globe, writers for websites must be especially aware of the needs of a multinational audience. Johnson-Sheehan provides several tips for writing for transcultural readers.
- Use common words. Slang and business jargon tend to be cultural and meanings can change quickly. Favor common words with stable definitions.
- Avoid clichés and colloquialisms. Do you think your idea is a home run? Your international readers who are not familiar with baseball may wonder why your idea causes people to run home.
- Avoid cultural icons. Use symbols, particularly symbols that may have a political or religious significance, sparingly and only when necessary.
- Minimize humor. Humor is highly cultural and notoriously difficult to translate. Humor in one culture may not be funny, and may even be offensive, in another culture. Use humor with extreme caution.
- Translate your website. To provide the best possible experience for your international audience members, translate your website into the languages of your target visitors.
Other Components of the Written Communication Core Competency
The CPTC Foundation certification also requires knowledge and understanding of the following additional concepts and techniques for developing clear, effective written communication:
- Writing effective paragraphs
- Types of sentences in paragraphs
- Plain versus persuasive style: characteristics of each; when each is appropriate
- Techniques for writing plain paragraphs
- Techniques for writing in a persuasive style
You can learn more about each of these areas in the Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC) Study Guide and the Johnson-Sheehan textbook.
Unreasonable Doubt? Clearing Up the Convoluted Language of Jury Instructions, http://www.wnyc.org/story/unreasonable-doubt-clearing-convoluted-language-jury-instructions/
Johnson-Sheehan, R. 2015. Technical Communication Today, 5th ed. Boston: Pearson.
Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC) Study Guide, Society for Technical Communication, see https://www.stc.org/certification/ for current URL.
ALAN HOUSER is president of Group Wellesley, Inc., a Pittsburgh, PA-based company that provides authoring, content management, and workflow services to technology-oriented businesses, and training to technical communicators in technologies and best practices. Alan is a distinguished consultant and trainer in the fields of XML technologies, authoring and publishing tools, and technical communication best practices. Alan is an STC Fellow, Past Society President, member of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee and Lightweight DITA Subcommittee, and an authorized CPTC trainer.
Group Wellesley, Inc. is pleased to provide public, online, and private CPTC Exam Preparation trainings. See www.groupwellesley.com/cptc for our current schedule, or contact Alan at email@example.com.