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Forms Giving You Problems? Try Plain Language.

MANY organizations waste enormous amounts of money producing forms that are badly designed or are too complicated.

According to a study of 3,800 members of the American Association of Retired Persons, filling out government and insurance creates these reactions:

Forms that are badly filled out waste 28% of clerical staff time, requiring more staff for the processing of forms. If your organization is not using plain language in its forms, you are wasting money.

People who have problems filling out forms often blame themselves and do not seek help. In such cases, filling out a form—the initial process in most business or professional transactions—becomes a crisis. It doesn't have to be. Well designed forms that use plain language will greatly increase their chance of success.

Simplifying forms using plain language will bring these benefits:

Efficient, cost-effective forms are not an accident. They result of training, method, and a commitment to plain language. To start your plain-language program, call Impact Information today.


Edward Fry's Readability Graph

Picture Ed Fry
Edward Fry (1925-2010)

EDWARD Fry worked as a Fullbright scholar in the 1960s in Uganda. While trying to help teachers teach English as a second language, he created one of the most popular readability tests, one that uses a graph.

Fry returned to the U.S. to become the director of the Reading Center of Rutgers University and a renowned authority on helping children learn to read.

Fry's original graph determined the difficulty of a text through high school. It was validated with comprehension scores of primary and secondary school materials and by correlations with other formulas.

In 1969, Fry extended the graph to primary levels. In 1977, he extended it through the college years. By plotting the average number of sentences and syllables in samples of 100 words, you get a grade-level score—the reading ability required to read the text.


The Fry Readability Graph

To use the Fry Graph:

  1. Randomly select 3 samples of 100 words.
  2. Plot the average number of sentences per 100-word passage on the x (vertical) scale, (calculating to the nearest tenth).
  3. Plot the average number of syllables per 100-word sample on the y (horizontal) scale.
  4. The zone where the two coordinates meet shows the grade score. Scores appearing in the two dark areas in the corners are invalid.

A warning comes with all the formulas: Do not write to the formula. While the formulas give a rough estimate of text difficulty, you cannot improve the readability of a passage simply by shortening words and sentences. You also have to attend to the tone, organization, coherence, and design. The formulas work best when used with texts that are well written and match the needs of the audience.


Plain Spanish—Lenguaje Sencillo

THERE have been plain-language movements in other languages besides English. They first addressed the methods for matching students with textbooks. Later, responding to consumer demands, they addressed plain language in law, technical writing, health care, and other issues.

Like many other languages, Spanish now has a number of readability formulas, "indices de legibilidad," for assessing the difficulty of written texts. Here are a few Web sites dedicated to plain Spanish:

Plain-language guidelines:
http://www.inclusiondigital.net/ponen/limicogni/slide8-0.html

Readability of Web pages:
http://tpgbuenosaires.tipografica.com/workshops/apuntes/legibilidad.html

Plain Language in Health Information:
http://www.terra.com/salud/articulo/html/sal3587.htm

Adapted Fog Readability Formula:
http://www.teclaredo.edu.mx/old/unidad5/lenguaje.htm

Adapted Flesch Reading Ease Formula:
http://www.scielosp.org/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1135-57272002000400007&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=es


Plain Language in the News

Readability of Drug Ads
http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/living/health/8468975.htm?1c

Fine Print of Financial Reports
http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/business/national/8305312.htm?1c

More on Canadian Jury Instructions
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20040419/
LANGUAGE19/TPNational/TopStories

Professions and Jargon
http://home.hamptonroads.com/stories/story.cfm?story=69584&ran=21471

Plain English for Police Dispatchers
http://home.hamptonroads.com/stories/story.cfm?story=69486&ran=130716

New Standards for Federal Web Sites
http://www.fcw.com/fcw/articles/2004/0419/pol-standards-04-19-04.asp

The Illiteracy Crisis
http://www.willcoxrangenews.com/articles/2004/04/28/news/ editorial_opinions/edit2.txt

Youth-Court Judge Tough on Illiteracy
http://www.clarionledger.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040426/NEWS01/
404260358/1002


"When you wish to instruct, be brief—so that the minds of men take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind."
— Cicero