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The Plain-Language Process

Quality Champion JoAnn T. Hackos


JoAnn Hackos

QUALITY documents are the product of a quality process. For twenty-five years, JoAnn Hackos has been teaching that an effective document is the result of a series of certifiable steps. It is the process that insures the quality.

Those steps include: 1. Planning, 2. Content specification, 3. Implementation, 4. Production, and 5. Evaluation.

According to Hackos, it is not enough to hire good writers and provide them with good tools and standards. To produce plain-language documents consistently, you also have to make sure all the right steps are taken.

The emphasis on process comes from the Total Quality approach promoted by W. Edwards Deming for industry during and after World War II. War-devastated Japan eagerly embraced his methods and quickly transformed its manufacturing into a model of efficiency and precision. Eventually, computer scientists such as Edward Yourdon and Tom DeMarco brought Total Quality methods into the field of software development. Joanne Hackos then brought those methods into the field of communications.

Many of the principles and practices of the Total Quality movement have been enshrined in the certification requirements of the International Standards Organization. The following briefly describes the process for quality documents.

1. Planning

Hackos asserts that the planning stage is the most important for the development of any document. Its focus is on audience analysis and input. This includes using sample members of the audience to determine the purpose of the text and how and where the text will be used. This entails a determination of the design and medium of the text, hard copy or online, and the final look-and-feel of the delivered document. To get the input of the audience, you can use focus groups, surveys, and online, telephone, and on-site interviews. The larger the project, the more profitable is frequent contact with members of the audience— before, during, and after the development of the document.

It is also important to determine the average reading level and prior knowledge of the audience. Planning also determines the criteria by which you can judge the outcome and success of the document. Each document thereby becomes an experiment in more effective process.

2. Content Specification

Content specification includes assessing and assembling the information needed by the audience. It often entails interviewing content experts and conducting research—always with the needs of the reader in mind.

3. Implementation

Implementation is the development of the text. It includes repeated cycles of writing, editing, and testing.

In Standards for Online Communication, which Hackos wrote with Dawn Stevens, she urges writers to "conform to accepted style standards" and to follow these familiar plain-language guidelines:

Testing should include both readability testing (to make sure the audience understands the text) and usability testing (to make sure the document is fit for its intended use).

4. Production

Production is the physical manufacturing and delivery of the document to the reader using the design specifications determined in the project plan. It includes tasks such as assembly of final layout, printing, binding, creating CD and DVD ROMs, shipping, and uploading to Web sites .

5. Evaluation

The last step, evaluation, not only determines the success or failure of the project, but also incorporates the lessons learned into the process.

Good editors and writers have long been familiar with the practices promoted by Hackos. What she has done is to bring them into a system of quality control for the successful management of documents.

Visit the Web site of ComTech Services, JoAnn's company: http://www.comtech-serv.com


Australia's Labelling Code of Practice

Designing Over-the-Counter Drug Labels

BESIDES following the legal requirements, drug makers also have to follow the requirements of usability and readability. To help them design effective labels, the Communications Research Institute of Australia (CRIA) has published a Code of Practice for designing labels for over-the-counter drugs.

According to the document, consumers should be able to find 90% of what they are looking for on a label and use appropriately 90% of what they find.

The label should offer the information they need at the point of sale and at the point of use as well as information at any point on how to get more information about the product.

The point-of-use information should have not only directions for use and dosage, but also information about storage and disposal, as well as the expiration date.

For the full PDF text of the Australian Code of Practice: http://www.communication.org.au/cria_publications/ publication_id_ 72_789425683.pdf


Prefer the Familiar Word

The Special Role of Vocabulary

FOR a long time, we have known that vocabulary is the stongest indicator of the difficulty of a text. For that reason, some measure of word difficulty is used in almost every readability formula.

In the early 20th century, two major trends stimulated a new interest in the role that vocabulary plays in reading:

  1. A changing school population, especially an increase in second generation secondary school students, the children of immigrants. Teachers reported that these students found textbooks too difficult.
  2. The growing use of scientific tools for studying and objectively measuring educational problems.

During that early period, psychologist Edward L. Thorndike of Columbia University noticed that teachers in Germany and Russia were using word counts to match texts with students. They found that the more frequently a word is used, the more familiar it is, and the easier it is to use. As we learn and grow, our vocabulary grows as does our ability to master longer and more complex sentences. How much they continue to grow depends on how much reading is done throughout life.

Most people do not realize how frequently some words are used. One study showed that twenty-five percent of the 67,200 words used in 24 life stories written by university freshmen consisted of these ten words: the, I, and, to, was, my, in, of, a, and it. The first 100 most frequent words make up almost half of all written material. The first 300 words make up about 65 percent of it.

Thorndike began counting the frequency of words in English texts in 1911. In 1921, he published The Teacher's Word Book, which listed 10,000 words by frequency of use. In 1932, he followed up with A Teacher's Word Book of 20,000 Words, and in 1944 with Irving Lorge, A Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words. Those books showed the frequency of each word in terms of how many times it occurs in a million words. The more frequent a word is, the more familiar it is, and the easier it is to understand.

Thorndike's work was the basis for the first readability formulas. Educators, textbook publishers, and teachers still use word-frequency lists as well as readability formulas to match reading materials with readers of different reading levels.

The Living Word Vocabulary

After Thorndike, extensive research on vocabulary continued. In 1981, publishers of the World Book Encyclopedia published The Living Word Vocabulary: A National Vocabulary Inventory by Edgar Dale and Joseph O'Rourke. The authors based this work on the earlier work of Thorndike and others as well as on a 25-year study of their own. It gave the grade score for the each of the different meanings of 44,000 words. It also gave the percentage of readers in the specified grade who are familiar with the word.

The authors obtained the familiarity scores by giving a three-choice test to students from the 4th to the 16th grade in schools and colleges throughout the U.S. The editors of the encyclopedia also used the scores to test the readability of the articles they published. Field tests of the encyclopedia later confirmed the validity of the word scores.

This work is exceptional in every respect. Many experts consider it to be the most reliable aid for creating plain-language texts for audiences of a specific reading level.

The following are sample entries from the work:

GradeScoreWordMeaning
1678%abruptiona sudden breaking off
0871%abscesswound with pus
1231%abscindto cut apart
1672%abscissahorizontal coordinate
1684%abscondrun away and hide
0467%absencebeing away
0691%absencenot having something
0484%absentnot here

Although The Living Word Vocabulary is out of print, you can find it at libraries and used bookshops along with word-frequency books such as The American Heritage Word Frequency Book. Also useful are the dictionaries published for different age groups such as the Thorndike-Barnhart series.

Plain-language does not demand that all words be simple, but that the average word be simple. At times it is necessary to use difficult words. When doing so, be sure to accurately describe difficult words the first time you use them. Then use them frequently in the rest of the text, in different situations. In that way, you will make the reader more familiar with them.


How Large is Your Vocabulary?

By Robert Gunning

WHETHER a person's vocabulary grows or shrinks after he leaves high school depends upon the extent of his reading. The fact that you have come this far in this book shows you have a more than passing interest in reading, writing, and language. It would be safe to predict on this evidence alone that you have at least 20,000 words at your command.

By means of the list of 100 words below, you can make a rough check on your vocabulary size. Words in this list are a spaced sampling from 10,000 words which appear less often than once per 1,000,000 written words but more often than once per 5,000,000. In other words, this list is from the 10,000 words that come next in the frequency list after the 20,000 you are most likely to know.

Check the number you could define or use in a sentence.

abrasive

doubloon

maelstrom

sampan

aegis

éclat

marinade

scraggy

alleviation

emblematical

melodramatic

shaveling

anise

equivocation

metamorphic

shelly

archenemy

exorcise

milliard

shillelagh

attribution

fascia

modicum

simulation

bambino

flabbergast

mossback

snuffle

beechen

forgather

nabob

spheroid

besprent

fructification

necromancer

stethoscope

bigamous

gaby

nonpareil

subservience

binomial

genital

offing

surrogate

buckram

gondolier

oubliette

tabard

calender

grunter

padrone

tannery

carom

hansom

participator

therapy

chaffer

herbivorous

perforation

tocsin

cloister

hornbeam

pickaback

trefoil

chochineal

hypothesis

plumbago

tyro

collusive

inadmissible

pottle

unchartered

complainant

indubitable

prioress

urbane

constitutionality

internationalist

psychiatry

vesicle

cosine

jamb

quiescent

waggle

daguerreotype

kapok

rearrangement

well-disposed

demagnetize

laminate

reimburse

wimple

devourer

leukocyte

revocation

yachting

disembowel

lodgment

rotund

zodiacal

The table will help you judge the number of words you know:

Words you know in above list

Your Probable Vocabulary

100

50,000 or more

90

40,000

80

30,000

70

25,000

60

20,000

50

15,000

40

12,000

30

10,000

From The Technique of Clear Writing by Robert Gunning, McGraw-Hill, 1952.


Plain Language in the News

Indian PM orders ministers to cut jargon:
http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/msid-838555,curpg-1.cms

Diabetes Web site too difficult for patients
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-09/uob-ndw090704.php

Lack of truth in drug studies:
http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=12966


"The difference between the right word and almost the right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
—Mark Twain