Friday, October 30, 2009

Plain Language Conference part 1 — progress over 35 years

A 35-year measure of progress: Sweden rules OK

Some reflections, some challenges

A highlight, for me, of the PLAIN’s excellent plain-language conference in Sydney in October (which Cleardocs sponsored) was an observation about the 35-year progress of plain-language in Sweden made by Anne-Marie Hasselrot in her session with Eva Olovsson. Anne-Marie’s observation has wonderful implications for anyone interested in plain language — and a few engaging challenges. (Many thanks to Anne-Marie for reviewing a draft of this post.)

First some background. In the 1970s, the Swedish government set up a plain-language Division in the Ministry of Justice. The Division’s task is to review all draft legislation produced by Swedish government departments. Although the Division’s plain-language experts do not have the authority to reject drafts, or to demand changes, they actively edit, rework, and generally improve the clarity of Sweden’s draft legislation.

Anne-Marie works for the Division reviewing draft legislation. In her presentation, Anne-Marie said that:

  • sometimes her heart sinks when she is asked to review yet another poorly written piece of draft legislation; and
  • to re-enthuse herself, she looks at legislation enacted in the early days of her Division’s work.

The highlight of the conference for me was Anne-Marie’s comment that the drafts from government departments that she now receives for review are clearer etc. than the legislation enacted in the 1970s . . . after the plain-language Division had reviewed the draft legislation before it was enacted. How good is that, eh?

The challenge is to keep improving things. We need to work out what we can do so that in 2044 someone despairing at a document they are trying to make clearer can look back to 2009 and be happy with the progress that’s been made in the last 35 years — in Sweden and everywhere. By the way, I’m not thinking that Anne-Marie’s Division could be doing better. I wouldn’t know — my Swedish is even worse than my non-existent Portuguese. Rather, I’m thinking that what’s coming next is fascinating — how can we go further to make documents clearer?

Reflecting on all this makes me think the game has changed since I became involved in the 1990s at the Law Reform Commission of Victoria. In those days, the documents we worked on were — on the whole — horrendous. One example: a major bank’s guarantee, which I rewrote for the bank as a demonstration project:

  • had an opening sentence of 1,528 words. (Please, nobody think I am focused on counting words and syllables — which is a controversial topic in the plain-language world. And hey, when a sentence is that long it’s worth commenting on — and it’s worth worrying about — the number of words in it);
  • had a haphazard structure — with ideas repeated and more-or-less randomly ordered (perhaps that should be “… randomly disordered”); and
  • was printed in a tiny typeface, on A3 paper, with absurdly long lines, and cramped white space.

Making that document clearer was fairly straight-forward . . . once you worked out what it meant. Testing the rewrite to work out how to make it clearer would have been useful and fun. Mind you, given the state of the original document, I think testing wasn’t really necessary to establish if the rewrite was clearer — I’d managed to improve things in many ways . . . yes, the average sentence length was shorter (but let’s not focus on that) . . . the material was completely restructured, there were many new headings, and there was an example. If the demonstration rewrite had ever been produced for use in the real world, then the design would have been nothing like the original.

By the way, in a court case involving the original guarantee, the barristers said they couldn’t understand it. Nor could the judge. So he refused to enforce the guarantee. See Houlahan v ANZ Banking, unreported judgment of Higgins J, Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court, 16 October 1992. Guess what? After that case, the bank rewrote the guarantee.

The thing is, nowadays, the documents many of us work on aren’t nearly as bad as that bank guarantee. So we need to be more creative in how we make documents clearer. We also need to research and test to make sure we are succeeding and to work out how to succeed more.

If we do these things, then (as I said in my paper at the conference) we’ll help plain language move from Main Street to Wall Street and then to waltz on down Clarity Boulevard.

Upwards & onwards


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