Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Developing resources in plain English

One of the elements of the eMentoring project I am managing for Aged Care Queensland is to develop an eMentoring handbook, which will also be developed into a CD ROM. This handbook will supplement the mentoring workshops I will be running.

eMentoring handbook
I have written the first draft of the handbook, and you are very welcome to have a look at it here, and give me feedback on the content and how it is written.

The main feedback has been that the content is appropriate but there are a couple of issues to address, such as sorting out structure so it is easier to follow (ie separate sections for mentor and mentee), and using stories to illustrate what mentoring is.

Using plain English
The main issue, which I must admit I was expecting, is that it is not written in plain English. In other words, it has a very academic feel to it, and may not be suitable for people who are less literate. Some of the people who end up as mentees may have left school at a very early age, so may find this handbook too boring for words.

Plain English versus academia

Plain English is English text that is concise, clear and does not use technical language. Over the years I have been criticized for not writing in an 'academic' manner, whatever that is. It really annoys me the way that some academics write in a way that no-one can understand. To me, it is academic snobbery and a way of trying to be one better than one's audience. But what is the point of writing if no-one can understand what you are saying?

Nevertheless, even though I think I am writing in everyday language, the feedback is that it is not 'plain' enough for the potential audience in this project.

How do you write in plain English?
There are a number of web sites that will help you when you are developing resources for the general public - as usual I started with the wikipedia page on plain English which sent me off to various useful websites.

The Plain English Campaign which has been running in the UK has a number of free guides on using plain English. The main points are:
  • use 'you' and 'me'
  • use lists
  • be positive
  • use short sentances
  • don't assume people know what you are talking about, so don't be afraid to give instructions
  • don't use technical language
  • use active verbs
Design of resources
The other interesting things I have read about plain English is how things like font and design affects how you read material:
  • use font such as Arial
  • don't go any smaller than size 12 (size is the absolute smallest you should use)
  • should alternate long and short lines
  • use ranged left alignment - justification alignment is harder to read
  • make use of white space to draw attention to titles and headings
  • use bold as opposed to upper case letters or underlining for emphasis

Do you have any examples of complicated English that has completed bamboozled you? What do you think is a great resource written in plain English?

In my next post I will address how this eMentoring handbook will meet the needs of indigenous and Torres Strait people.

Image: 'I Want to Live' thejbird


Stephens said...

It is only advisable to use Arial if your document will be read online or by a young audience.

The PEC is out of step with this advice.


Sarah Stewart said...

@Stephens Thanks for that. What font would you recommend? I always use Times New Roman - is that a good idea?

Sarah Stewart said...

Some suggestions from my Twitter network after reviewing the handbook:

Use shorter sentances, especially at the beginning.

Define the terms - incorporate a glossary.

Use more 'I' and 'me'

ruthdemitroff said...

There must be comething in their culture similar to mentoring that they understand and are at ease with. If you can start with something they know and then introduce the added components, it wouldn't feel so overwhelming. e-mentoring is taking something to the next level. Most cultures teach through story - e-mentoring is adding a new twist to a cultural story of developing gifts.

Sarah Stewart said...

Thanks for that, Ruth, especially your comments about story telling. I included a section in my handbook about how to use story telling for reflection-I will be emphasizing that as a method of teaching/learning at the F2F mentoring workshops.

Sarah Stewart said...

More email suggestions:

1. Make a list of all the authors you have cited for the back of the guide. Then strip them from the body text. These references make your material too scholarly--at least my understanding is that this is to be a practical training guide.

2. Go through the text and find places where you can make bulletted lists. These will break up the dense text.

3. Use the grammar checker in your word-processor to check for and remove most of the passive verbs.


I am resistant to getting rid of references although I see why this has been suggested. What I thought I might do is compromise by using numbered references which hopefully be less intrusive.