Writing Plain English
The academic year has ended. I’ve proofread my last thesis for 2014. What a wide range of topics I’ve had to become ‘expert’ in this year! They range from contemporary cinema in Indonesia to sexual harassment in the workplace, biochemical testing of food and water contamination to mental health services, geocoding address systems and geoinformation technology.
These students don’t have English as their primary language. Their research is good, their spoken English is ok, but they struggle with formal written English. As do many Australian students and adults – a fact I tell the students so they don’t feel too upset at all the red lines in Word’s Track Changes.
Students aren’t my only clients, of course. I proofread and copy edit (and occasionally write copy) for not-for profit organisations, small to medium businesses, PR and marketing companies, government agencies and publishers. Topics and writing styles vary widely but the editing challenges are the same.
With any job – proofreading, copy editing, copy writing – I aim to make the final document the best it can be. For many people grammar and punctuation are mysteries. For ESL students the mystery is huge – the rules of English don’t make sense!
How I help them is how I work with all my clients. I research their topic before I change a single word. As a ‘stringer’ on a regional daily I was expected to report on any situation from council meetings to drownings at sea, politicians’ promises to family murders, and everything between. Research was mostly reading previous news stories to get up to speed. Now there is the internet.
Once I know the essentials of the topic and start editing I apply the principles of Plain English. These are very simple. Anyone can learn them and apply them: be clear, be brief, and avoid jargon/technical terms unless absolutely necessary.
More on Plain English another time.