Blog Post #6: Plain Language

Throughout my college English career, the one main issue that has plagued many of my reports and papers is my tendency to be redundant and use unnecessary words, usually to sound smarter or fill up empty spaces on a Microsoft Word document.  While my underlying intentions may sometimes work, my ultimate goal is to become the best writer I can be and this can only be accomplished by mastering clear, cohesive, and direct methods of writing.

As a technical writer, it is absolutely imperative that the writer learn and master a means of translating difficult, job-specific vernacular to be understood by people of all levels of literacy and education.  In fact, Public Law 111-274 states that “this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”  With such a wide range of levels in literacy and education in our country, many people would be lost or confused.  A simple step-by-step guide to setting up your sound system could potentially be seen as another language should the discourse be difficult or highly technical.  Even something that may seem simple and easily understandable to one could be quite the opposite for another.

While in school at Valdosta State University, I took a creative writing class for a semester.  I enjoyed that class because our teacher was very smart and creative and she allowed us to indulge in any topics as long as they followed the assignment.  Many times I found myself writing about soccer because it is something I am very familiar with and have many experiences that I could discuss.  I remember writing a paper about my experience playing soccer overseas and how I was able to get involved in such an adventure.  I wrote about the selection process and how competitive it was to even be selected for a roster spot.  I felt confident about the paper and was hoping to receive high marks for my attention to detail and creative imagery.

However, upon receiving my paper back, I noticed red marks signaling areas for revision dotted all over my work.   The main issue after reading each comment was my failure to explain exactly what was meant by each stage that I went through to finally achieve a spot to play overseas.  The intricate soccer lingo had failed to capture the attention of my professor, who was confused on several points and could not grasp the significance of my paper because of it.  Although only a minute issue and clearly not government related, this opened my eyes to the importance of plain language and the ability to make technical jargon more understandable for the common person.  Without a more clear approach, people could become lost and lose focus on the ultimate goal the specific paper or report is trying to give.

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4 thoughts on “Blog Post #6: Plain Language”

  1. In my humble opinion, your teacher should have given you an A for merely playing competitive soccer overseas. I’ve tried to play pick up soccer games and quit out of frustration, so you forever have my respect. While I am of the opinion that your position about technical writers being able to translate difficult text for people of all literacy levels has some merit, I also believe there exist some cases in which this duty should be assigned to the audience, not the technical communicator. Many subject matters have particular terms associated with their given field (i.e. literature, psychology, law, philosophy) that if attempted to be translated in a simpler context, the conciseness in which the original term expresses, would be lost in translation.
    In other words, when it comes to “job-specific vernacular,” it is not the technical communicator’s duty to simplify terms that are exclusive to a certain field. Said terms are specific for a reason. Most of these terms are utilized because they articulate clear and cohesive concepts, which separate various fields; therefore, in cases of complex fields of study, the audience should, as my teacher once told me, LEARN THE LANGUAGE!

  2. You brought up the important point that implementing “Plain Language” strategies is not just not using too many “big” words or too many words in general, but is also not using jargon that your audience will not understand. Your use of “intricate soccer lingo” failed you because it confused your professor and therefore not only disinterested her but made your professor think you did not understand the purpose of the assignment. Your next question might be: how do you use plain language to get a better grade on your paper?

    Dr. Wharton asked in her blog post: “What is the relationship, if any, between a communicator’s obligation to use plain language and a communicator’s obligation to avoid misrepresentation or deception?” And here I think you must consider the necessity of the jargon you used, in whether or not it would actually help explain or further understanding within you writing or if it just add supplemental information. If it is in fact unnecessary, you could take out the soccer related jargon without misrepresenting the story you were trying to tell. However, if you believe the jargon you used helps you explain your story, you should keep it and then to effectively complete the assignment, explain the unclear language you used. This way you can be true to your story and you professor will be able to understand it.

  3. In my experience as a student, I have discovered that my worst flaw in communicating via text is an underlying desire to create long, lavished, and never ending sentence. I do not mean run-on sentence, but rather sentences that– through grammatically correct– attempt to pack a lot of information into a space that is too small. I have the fear of sounding childish or uneducated if I break up a thought into multiple sentences. However, it has been proven many times, by professors’ red ink, that my attempts at “beautiful sentences” result in an incomprehensible mess. I find that by separating the information into smaller bits creates a flow of information that the audience can follow and understand; thus, it leads to clarity and success in communication.

  4. I enjoyed reading your blog post because it goes straight to the point on “Plain Language” without making it too complicated. I use to play soccer, so I know how confusing it can be when you explain the game to someone who knows nothing about it. I never knew that was “Plain Language”. It also goes down the line along with ‘how to build a table’ from Ikea. There are some words that make absolutely no sense; hence, making the worst backwards table ever. It really comes down to how plain language is used towards certain people. It even comes from the way you talk to people as well. In my opinion, I think a lot of people get confused when plain language comes into view.
    It also depends on what educational background the person has, as well as, the cultural background. In this day and age, we have to consider how and when plain language is used.

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