Plain Language Techniques

Plain language writing is about creating communications materials that are easy to use. But more importantly, it’s about managing information quality and providing context-specific solutions. Here are 9 steps that will help you to align the two:

  1. Identify your audience and know what they want to know.
  1. Organize information logically and exclude unnecessary details.
  1. Explain how the text is organized and how to use it.
  1. plain language techniques

    Plain Language Checklist

    Provide general information first, and add specific details as needed.

  1. Use descriptive headings, connect related concepts, describe processes in chronological order, use parallel structure lists.
  1. Use simple, everyday language, short sentences and paragraphs, avoid introducing too many ideas.
  1. Use active voice, action verbs, present tense, and pronouns (you, we, and so forth) to engage the reader.
  1. Define technical terms, minimize the use of acronyms, abbreviations and symbols, and use them consistently when they’re essential.
  1. Verify the accuracy of references and cross-references.

plain language techniques

What Science Knows

“Scientific materialism is neither an implication nor a presupposition of doing science. Rather it is a metaphysical and sometimes religious stance that some people have toward science.” ― Angus MenugeAgents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science

Here is the thing. Whatever anyone, including science as a whole, could say about how things are is always a reverse-engineered knowing based on what we think is happening. This is not at all the same as knowing what is happening.

What science knows

Source: Wikipedia

Think about all the things that are taking place as you sit here reading this post, things you don’t know about. Think other cultures, other times, other ideas, other species, and infinite other ways of knowing and being.

How much, in this context of numberless knowers and knowns, do we really know? Do we really know where or who we are apart from the names we made up for things? Do we even know what experience is?

To say that our ignorance massively overwhelms whatever we may think we know is a serious understatement.

Whatever we know is never known in terms of all that is happening – who can claim the perspective of all that’s happening? — but only in terms of the limitations imposed on knowing by our space-time specific coordinates, or our own perspective.

Knowing, in short, is dependent on the knower and his present understanding of what reality is like, whether this knowing is subjective, meaning limited to one person, or objective, meaning limited to what the scientific community believes is true at any given time.

This simple yet radical limitation of all reverse-engineered knowing – including all knowing that is science — is not always clear to our public science educators, especially the new generation of the so-called science popularizers.

Sagan, Dawkins, Dennett, Tyson, Pinker, Krauss and even Hawking persistently confuse what is being pointed out here: knowing what we think is happening is not at all the same as knowing what is happening.

And since no one (apart from Richard Dawkins perhaps) can lay claim to a universal viewpoint that trumps all of space-time, our belief that “knowing what we think is true” and “knowing the truth” are in any causal relationship whatsoever is just that – a belief.

As powerful a method as science has proven to be, it isn’t and has never been about capital “T” truth, but about what works, or what is reproducible under very specific circumstances.

The belief that science must be true because it works, or that science is about what is true, is not only a logical fallacy (as there is no necessary connection between what works and what is true) and an empirical absurdity (correlation can never imply casualty), but effectively a leap of faith — a deeply non-rational, perhaps even a religious gesture.

Indeed, our new generation of science dogmatists stands in radical juxtaposition to the older generation of more philosophically literate scientists – Bohr, Einstein, Gödel and Heisenberg – who readily recognized that even scientists who reject the value of philosophical inquiry outright, are always already doing philosophy in the sense that they must presuppose a philosophical context (a pre-scientific and taken-for-granted metaphysical position; “scientific realism”, for example).

The older generation of paradigm shifters in science have also been careful to communicate to us that the key pre-scientific assumptions within which all science operates – e.g. time, space, causality – are themselves non-scientific, meaning that they are the necessary conditions of experience (what must be true so that we can experience) rather than experience itself, and as such are metaphysical (axiomatic) rather than empirical (testable) notions.

Our popular science apologists, enamored as they are with a rather childish notion of rationality, have been telling us an extremely silly, one-sided story about what science is, does and knows.

Recognizing this is especially important today because after over a century of scientists’ and philosophers’ continuous attempts — and rather miserable failures — to articulate a demarcation line between science and non-science, and so a clear-cut scientific method, the academic community seems to have understood that such a categorical line is simply not meaningful.

Scientific discovery is so complex and so enfolded into the process of life as a whole that it cannot be abstracted away from it and set up as some kind of pinnacle of human understanding, a final means to discovering the truth.

If there is one thing we should learn from the real giants of science, it must be that science, right from the start and in principle, is a tool-making rather than a truth-yielding activity.

That at its best, it is an intensely dynamic and creative form of art which can never be formalized, and not a follow-the-scientific-method (the stuff we made up yesterday) ritual leading to some imaginary higher-order rational truth that transcends the human experience.

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what science knows

Plain Language Science Tips

writing services ottawaBy popular request, here are more tips on how to eliminate pomposity, exaggeration and archaic language from government, legal and science writing. 

                     Instead of                                 Use

  • for the purpose of                         to
  • with a view to                                to
  • in order to                                      to
  • due to the fact that                       because
  • in view of the fact                         because
  • inasmuch as                                   because
  • for the reason that                        because
  • with regard to                                about
  • with reference to                           about
  • with respect to                               about
  • relative to                                       about
  • in the amount of                           for
  • at a cost of                                      for
  • for a sum of                                    for
  • fully cognizant                             aware
  • at this point in time                    now
  • whether or not                             whether
  • despite the fact that                    although
  • at which time                                when
  • a sufficient quantity of               enough
  • in the near future                        soon
  • during the time that                   while
  • by means of                                   by
  • in excess of                                    over/above
  • in view of the above                    therefore
  • in the course of                            during
  • the majority of                              most
  • in conjunction with                     with
  • in the event that                           if
  • at the present time                      now
  • a limited quantity of                    few
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Plain language checklist in PDF.

Eliminate redundancies:

  • “my personal opinion”
  • “rectangular in shape”
  • “two equal halves”
  • “large in size”
  • “new innovation”
  • “consensus of opinion”
  • “past history”
  • “hot water heater”

Cut unnecessarily pompous legalese:

  • pursuant
  • heretofore
  • appraisement
  • herein
  • finalize
  • predicated
  • consummate
  • above-referenced
  • fully cognizant
  • opine

Finally, the structure “The … of” is a sure indicator the writer is using meaningless or obvious information. As in:

  • … in the province of Ontario …
  • … estimated at a cost of ….
  • … during the month of September …
  • … rose to a level of …
  • … located in the city of Toronto …
  • … are currently in the process of requesting …

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Science Communication Quotations

“Even for the physicist, the description in plain language will be a criterion of the degree of understanding that has been reached.” – Werner Heisenberg

“One way to find out if you have succeeded (in writing clearly) is to show your draft to colleagues in other specialties. If they do not understand, neither, very probably, will The Lancet’s staff.” – The Lancet

science communication quotations“It is impossible to disassociate language from science … To call forth a concept, a word is needed.” - Antoine Lavoisier (the father of modern chemistry)

“Write for a scientist in another field. Don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence, but don’t overestimate their knowledge of a particular field. When writing about science, don’t simplify the science; simplify the writing.” - Julie Ann Miller, Editor of Science News

“Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.” – Albert Einstein

Vague forms of speech have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard words mistaken for deep learning, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but a hindrance to true knowledge. - John Locke, 1690

“The only answer we’ve come up with for making this move more quickly is that the public has to demand it. When people get something that’s not written clearly, they should call the agency and remind them of their right to plain language.” – Annetta Cheek, Plain Language Coordinator for the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, 1999

“The biggest problem with communication,” according to George Bernard Shaw, “is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” – George Bernard Shaw

“If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless.” – Erwin Schrodinger (Nobel Prize winner in physics)

“What we write and how well we write it will be a major factor in sustaining public interest and involving parents, educators, and local officials in our efforts. In short, we want to put a new face on the Department’s regulatory documents.” – Gene Hickok, Under Secretary of Education, 2002

“A sentence should never be cruel and unusual.” – William C. Burton, Chairman, The Burton Awards for Legal Achievement

science communication quotations

What is experience made out of?

Nearly all of us understand experiencing as essentially divided into two parts: a subject, the experiencer, who experiences the world from “inside” of the body, and an object, that which is being experienced, the “outside”, usually and rather vaguely thought of as “matter”.

what is experienceWhere the “inside” and the “outside” meet, an activity called “the mind” comes into being; its function is making sense of experience. In the process of this sense-making, a sense of self, a “me”, emerges, and becomes a reference point in relation to which the organism, the mind-body system, now experiences the world as “other than me”.

Although to date scientists and philosophers have not been able to clearly articulate the mind-body relationship, the above description tends to be our default or common sense understanding — in the sense that we tend to act as if it was naturally true — of how things stand with regard to experience: we, the personal consciousness, alive in the material world of bodies, things, events and people.

But, for a moment, let’s consider if this common sense conception of experience – experience as something happening to a “me” — reflects our actual experience.

Ask yourself: Have I ever known or seen or sensed or touched an object without knowing or seeing or sensing or touching it? Did I ever come in contact with anything other than my experience? Is there anything in my actual experience that is made of something other than my knowing or experiencing it? Continue reading

What is abstraction?

We don’t need a complicated theory to understand the basic empirical fact that abstractions — all words and numbers, and all scientific theories, and everything we think we know — are not real in the same sense as the phenomena they are pointing to are real.

what is abstractionThe word “car” will not take you across town, nor will the concept “aspirin” cure a headache. Nor does there exists, in the actual world, an abstraction like the number one.

In our actual, direct experience, so quite self-evidently, there is simply the unique singularity of every form of life, real or abstract, and nothing is ever experienced “in general”.

To make sense of the always changing sensations and perceptions, thought constructs — based on direct experience of hearing, touching, tasting, seeing, smelling — abstract objects (“tree”, “cat”, “salty”, “loud”). These abstract objects interact with pre-existent abstract objects (memory, language), giving us the ability to compare what we think is going on presently to what we remember.

The activity of knowing is thus limited to the way in which our continuously fabricated by thought abstract objects  (“tree”, “cat”, “salty”, “loud”) interact with the abstract objects that constitute memory (images, sensations, concepts and so on). Knowing never gets as far as things-as-they-exist-objectively because all that knowing can know is always already filtered through a pre-existent matrix of its own conditioning.

For example: we don’t experience a “cat” as an object. What we experience is a set of perceptions and sensations, which we then name using pre-existent set of categories that constitute understanding — “furry”, “purrs”, “soft” — and decide, based on what we already decided a “cat” looks like, that what we are experiencing is indeed a “cat” . Thus, what we tend to think of as our experience of the world — a cat, a tree, a person — is merely experience of an abstract idea!

Meanwhile, what is actually, or “empirically”, being experienced before abstraction, before all ideas, is simply the activity of hearing, touching, tasting, seeing and smelling.

So while for practical purposes we pretend that our experiences “come from” objects that are real apart from our knowing them, perhaps on some level we do have a hunch that what is in fact “empirical” in knowing are (always one-of-a-kind and without precedent) perceptions and sensations, and that all else is simply ideas and concepts imposed on this direct sensory experiencing.

Let’s go further: let’s say we pick up two grains of sand and say of them “two”, or refer to a four-legged furry form as “cat”. In doing so, in thus constructing an abstract object, we have no choice but to leave out of the abstracting process those attributes of each grain of sand and each actual cat which differentiate it from all other forms.

That is, we leave out of the process of abstraction-making the aspects of experience that make a particular thing recognizable as singular and unique. If we don’t, our “abstract objects” simply don’t work — we will have made an abstract object of very limited practical value if we suppose that the concept “cat” means “a cranky Siamese named Steve”.

This is both the cost and the benefit of abstraction: we trade what is directly given in experience for the ability to work with experience and communicate what we think we find to others.

Abstractions are real

what is abstractionStill, the point is not that abstractions are not real, but rather that their reality is different than the reality of the forms they are pointing to.

In our actual experience, abstractions are as real and singular as what they are pointing to — each occupying a specific space-time “location” — but they are real as abstractions, and are not generalities or universals. 

In our example above, the concept or the sound “two” or “cat” can be used in the real world to do whatever the concept or the sound “two” or “cat” can do in any given context. But whatever these abstractions do, they are always acting in a specific here and now, or as particulars. (Again, since in our actual experience no two situations or experiences are ever the same, nothing can be said to exist in the same way across all situations, or in general.)

It is therefore safe to say that on examining experience we cannot find anything at all that is truly general about sounds, names or forms — all of these are one-off creations of the process of sense-making, or translating direct sensation and perception into functional abstract objects. To say that abstractions have “general qualities” — and by and large we tend to believe that they do — is to privilege a made up idea over our actual experience, a gesture closer to ideology than science.

Knowing this may help us understand that abstractions have little to do with what is true about the world — despite what Dawkins and Sagan would have us believe, for example — and are instead a useful tool that our species uses to work with experience so as to enable us to survive and adapt to the environment.

We could further realize, for instance, that the form “cat” does not really exist apart from the sound and the concept “cat”, or that Canada is an abstract (rather than real) place, or that the “Theory of Evolution” or “gravitation” is a sound attached to an abstract object, which can function in whatever way it can function at any given time and place, but is not universally true.

Indeed, understanding how abstractions work may reveal to us that science — right from the start and in principle — is a tool-making rather than a truth-yielding activity. It also sets up for us a framework from which to launch further inquiry into the nature of science, and thus science communication as well.

Michael Urbanski is a science communication consultant and the main culprit behind Plain Language Science.

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 what is abstraction