In January, we were happy to have Ashley Bischoff as our guest speaker. Ashley talked about embracing plain language for better accessibility. Ashley is an accessibility expert and copy editor for The Paciello Group. She has a knack for taming technical and business writing. She is a heartfelt advocate for plain language. She relishes any chance to comb corporate speak into everyday language. Ashley lives in Dallas, she likes listening to metal and drinking tea.
Writing reports and documentation is nothing new for many of us — we write them all the time. But even though we may do our best to write clearly, those who receive our reports and documentation might not be as familiar with accessibility as we are.
At the end of the day, no matter how technically correct a document may be, our words won't do much good if those who are reading them can't understand what we're trying to say. But writing isn't a black box — there are straightforward techniques that we can use to help ensure that our writing remains accessible.
Plain Language Can Improve Accessibility
Now, for many of us within the field of accessibility, it's common for us to write things like reports, analyses, and documentation specifications. Those are all good things, but you know what, our documentation, reports, and analysis are only as good as what people can get out of them. If people find the writing to be too complicated or hard to understand, then they won't be able to make use of our advice no matter how good it is.
So, what makes some writing more complicated than others? You might even be asking yourself: well how do I know if my writing is complicated? Well, it turns out that people who study language complexity have narrowed it down to two factors. It primarily comes down to sentence length and syllables.
The more complex the material, the shorter the sentences should be. In fact, experts recommend keeping sentences to between 20 to 25 words. The reason that experts recommend this is because when we're presented with a sentence that we're reading, our brain has to ingest that sentence. Our brain has to sort through the words, piece them together, and basically put that puzzle back together to figure out what that sentence means.
Small changes like breaking larger sentences into smaller ones can really make a difference. Sentence length is half the battle. Cutting syllables out is the other half.
Imagine Words as Being a Bit like Tetris Pieces
Tetris pieces come in different shapes and sizes; some are bigger, some are smaller. Some are easier to work with than others. You can think of syllables as the building blocks of words. So, for instance, you can think of one syllable words like being a bit like two block Tetris pieces. You can think of two syllable words, like perhaps "update", as being a bit like a three-block Tetris piece. You can think of three syllable words as about a five-block Tetris piece. This is where things start to get a bit tricky.
When you can, use words with fewer syllables. But sometimes, you have to use a long word. There are instances where long words might be unavoidable. To give one example, the word accessibility has six syllables. It's conceivable that if you were to be writing a report about accessibility, you may well have to use the word accessibility. That's okay. If you are going to be saddled with one or two of these weird shape Tetris pieces, you might be able to get by. So, using long words occasionally is all right. With that being said, the game just wouldn't be fun anymore if you are only handed huge pieces like these over and over and over.
Use Contractions to Avoid Sounding Like a Robot
A copy editor named Tom Freeman analyzed contemporary American English for patterns around how contractions are being used today. He studied a database of words that covered about two decades and four hundred and fifty million words. It covered sources including newspapers, magazines, and TV transcripts. It included sources such as the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, CBS, etc.
Here's what Tom discovered.
He concentrated on newspapers and magazines because these represent how contractions would be used in published writing today. He discovered that "don't" was used almost seven times more often than "do not" and "can't" is used almost three times more often than "cannot". With those findings, he showed that the tide has turned. What was once avoided, is now commonplace.
Other people who study linguistics, like Wayne Danielson and Dominic Larosa, also found that contractions also improve readability. Writing style guides have also been on board the contraction train for years. For instance, the Chicago Manual of Style says that most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If you thoughtfully use contractions in prose, it makes reading more enjoyable.
You might still be a little bit skeptical about this. But think back to any sci-fi robot movie, think about the way that the robot talked in those at movies. Invariably, movie robots end up saying stuff like "I will be glad to see them if they do not get mad," rather than saying "I'll be glad to see them if they don't get mad." The reason that movie robots do that is that screenwriters know that the easiest way to make anyone sound like a robot is to take away all their contractions. While that may sound like a cheap trick, it works every time. So, then the next time that you're writing up something at work, or the next time that you're writing up a blog post, ask yourself this: Do I want to sound like an automaton or do I want to sound like a person?
When you're writing
- Try to aim for an average sentence length of 20 some words.
- Keep an eye out for any three and four syllable words.
- Use shorter words when you can, because any little bit helps.
- Use contractions early and often.
- Ashley also recommends double-checking what you've written. If you are using a readability analyzer, you can check the reading grade level. You want to aim for a grade level of 9 at the highest. Checking that level is a good way to see whether your writing is suitable for your audience.
Links mentioned in the talk:
- PlainLanguage.gov’s list of simpler words: https://plainlanguage.gov/guidelines/words/use-simple-words-phrases
- Wikipedia’s list of simpler words: http://bit.ly/wikiplain
- Readability analyzer: https://datayze.com/readability-analyzer.php
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