Proactive Editing: Teaching Plain Language to Staff Writers
May 31, 2019 | Aaron Dalton
This is a very brief summary of a conference presentation I gave at the 2018 Editors Canada conference in Saskatoon.
The challenge most in-house editors face is that by the time documents get to them, their ability to influence is limited. If a project has structural flaws, there’s rarely sufficient time to address them. Where I work (the Alberta Energy Regulator), in an attempt to improve the quality of the writing before it comes to the editing team, we began exploring ways to help writers before they put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard.
Since 2015 I’ve taught a plain language writing course for staff writers. In the hopes of helping other editors implement similar programs where they work, I’m going to explain how we approached things. Every organization is different, but I think our model is general enough to be helpful. I am not a trained educator. I am not putting this model forward as an ideal. This is just what we did.
I’ve divided the model into three sections:
- Continuous improvement
Data, Data and More Data
Before doing anything, you need to understand the problem you’re trying to fix. Ideally, you want to answer questions like the following:
- What do our stakeholders expect from us?
- How are we measuring up to those expectations?
- Who is reading our documents?
- What do they think of them?
- How are the problems I’m seeing as an editor affecting our stakeholders?
At the AER, we do extensive public opinion research and focus testing of documents. Not all organizations will have the resources to do that. There are still informal, ad hoc approaches you can take:
- Do you have customer satisfaction surveys or data?
- Do you have records of customer complaints?
- What do you know about the number, duration and topics of support calls?
- Can you do some internal focus testing? Have colleagues outside of the subject area read various documents and provide feedback.
- Is there a larger community of practice you can connect with? You could work with other local communicators or sibling organizations and do some informal focus testing for each other.
What’s important is that you gather as much hard data as you can.
Without the support of your leaders, it will be impossible to establish a sustainable training program. This is the primary reason you need so much data. Never go to your executive saying, “I want to do X” or “I think Y would be a good idea.” You want to say instead, “The data show that we should do X or Y.”
Culture of Learning
The odds of your new program surviving long term are greatly improved if learning is already a part of your organizational culture. If there’s a single group that manages all the learning activities, work with them. If there isn’t, start a community of practice so the various people doing training can coordinate. And if there is no such culture in your organization, your time might be best spent building one. Again, finding like-minded colleagues and working together is the best approach.
Scope and Priorities
Before you can start designing the course, you need to be clear about your goals and resources. Do you just want to cover the basics in a half-day? Or do you want to build a multi-session writing course with homework and evaluation?
We started with having contractors come in. Those courses were sometimes two days long, but once we established that our goal was to get the principles of plain language in front of as many employees as possible, we realized that a half-day course centred on the basics was the most useful.
The next step is to build a repository of real-world example sentences and documents that illustrate the issues you’re hoping to fix. As much as possible (hopefully entirely), avoid arbitrary, constructed sentences. People want to be able to relate to the materials.
Try to be fair across areas of the organization, so find examples from law, human resources, scientists and leaders. Don’t pick on anyone exclusively. And anonymize where necessary.
With a clear idea of the scope and goals of the course, and a bank of examples, you can now develop the materials for the course. There’s not room here for me to go into what I’ve done, but I’m also not a trained educator. There’s more than one way to approach this. Basically, I developed a workbook for them to leave the class with, and the course is us discussing a principle and then reviewing and correcting sample sentences.
These are the things you’re going to do over and over again as you teach the course.
Now it’s time to actually teach! Ideally, one of the editors will be willing to do this. Internal staff are the most knowledgeable about the organization and its employees and about what the biggest challenges are. They are best situated to fully tailor a course to your unique situation.
Take notes after every class. At least record the dates and number of attendees. But also review any questions that came up or areas that you felt didn’t go so well. Maybe a participant asked a question you didn’t anticipate or highlighted an infelicity in your course materials. Adjust your delivery and course design as appropriate.
You or the group managing learning should also do follow-up surveys. It’s vital that you hear from your students.
- How was the venue?
- How did they like the workbook? The slides?
- How about the instruction? (Personal humility is a must; prepare to be taught.)
- What are some things they learned from the course?
- What would they like to know more about?
- What other suggestions might they have?
We have made a lot of changes thanks to student feedback.
And you need to keep tracking your stats. While it is difficult to link large-scale survey results to one specific course, you want to know if you’re having any impact at all. And you should definitely keep tracking internal stats (support call tracking, focus testing, etc.).
And don’t discount anecdotal evidence. Track specific projects that you think did plain language well (and maybe not so well) and how they were received. Are you seeing an improvement in the writing generally? Are you finding authors easier to work with?
- Try to keep the interaction upbeat and positive. I avoid terms like “good” and “bad” writing and focus on “effective” vs. “less effective.”
- Keep things interactive. I make sure they know up front that the first hour is me talking a lot but that there will be more interaction afterwards.
- Try to keep class sizes at least in the double digits, and give students lots of time to do the group work exercises together. Often the best learning happens in the group discussions.
- Do classes in the morning. In my experience, people are too sluggish in the afternoon. We book our courses for 8:00 or 8:30 a.m.
- Put an answer key in the workbook. Not everybody will work on all the examples, so make it possible for them to refer back later and see what you said for each one.
- Be encouraging and realistic. Perfecting your writing is a career-long endeavour. In the back of the book, I give them a list of all the things we talked about and tell them to put it up on their wall and just pick one thing. Work on that one thing for as long as is reasonable given the amount of writing they do. When they feel comfortable with it, pick something else. Over time, they will improve.
- When working in-house, there are certain politics involved in getting promotions. Building and delivering this training is a great way to highlight your expertise and demonstrate your value.
- It looks good on a resumé and can lead to expanded opportunities.
- Developing and delivering training adds variety to your workday.
To the Team
- It raises the profile of the editing team. Editors typically have to do more work than others to establish their bona fides. The content of the course and how you deliver it are opportunities to build strong professional relationships.
- Those strong relationships lead to smoother and more productive collaborations. As a result of the training, document quality has improved generally, and authors are more willing to engage early and seriously consider editorial comments.
To the Organization and Stakeholders
- A/B-style focus tests of specific documents (original vs. plain language versions) have definitively shown that people prefer and respond better to plain language documents.
- When stakeholders see that you’re trying to communicate clearly, it builds trust. This is good for everyone.