Plain English & Plain Langauge

Are you using questions in your writing to help your reader?

Use questions in your writing – think about your audience

My mother is Polish. Under Polish law, that legally makes me Polish, but I am not yet officially recognised as being Polish. Therefore, this means I have to go ‘through the process’ of confirming my citizenship to get my Polish passport i.e. I have to go to the relevant offices in Warsaw and submit documents.  Of course, before starting this ‘process’, I have questions before the process, will have during the process and possibly even after the process.

If anyone, in any language, wants to know something, they ask a question. In my case, to get the answers I want, I have to read the materials the Polish ministry has written to help me. The problem is, the ministry didn’t use questions.

The ministry didn’t think about me as a reader of their documents, or the questions I might have. The result is a document that doesn’t think about it’s intended audience and isn’t much help. A writer of a document that thinks about and wants to help a potential reader, should use questions the reader might have so the reader can easily find help. In this post, I’ll give you an example of how this might happen.

Does your writing think about the needs of the reader?

In my context about wanting to confirm my citizenship, the basic questions I have should be obvious to the ministry or the person preparing the document. These questions would include standard things a person would want to know such as: where to go, who to talk to, and what to bring. In fact, these questions are exactly the same e.g.,

Issue: I need to be officially recognised as being Polish
My questionThe question the ministry should think of
Where do I have to go to do XYZ?Where does the person have to go to do XYZ?
Who do I have to see to get ABC?Who does the person have to see to get ABC?
If this situation applies to me, what do I have to do?If this situation applies to the person, what does the person have to do?

The questions being the same, the next step would be to think about the general plain English rules a ministry should use to write a document that’s meant to help people. In fact, using questions goes a lot way to achieving this straight away. Standard plain English rules would say that the writing has to be:

  1. accessible – people have to know where to get further information and that it’s presented in a way that is attractive and engaging,
  2. understandable – it has to be written in a way that an average person, with an average knowledge of English, will be able to understand,
  3. directed – the information should talk to a person as a real human and not talk about someone as being part of an abstract process, and
  4. actionable – people need to know what they must do to complete the process.

However, what ‘officialdom’ tends to do is write in an official bureaucratic abstract way e.g.

The question the ministry should think ofAn example of what officialdom might write
Where does the person have to go to do XYZ?Department for Citizenship Issues
Who does the person have to see to get ABC?Manager for Passport Applications
If this situation applies to the person, what does he have to do?Necessary income and potential exceptions

Simple or not?

You would think this is simple stuff, after all, if you read online guides to improve communication (I give you some examples here), one rule is ‘think about your audience’. But the problem with writing, particularly in a legal or business context, is that the concepts of ‘simplicity’ and ‘audience’ are lost in the process of drafting the final document. What you then get is a document that becomes part of the problem (as in the table above) and not the solution.

A real context

By way of example, in the office this week, I saw this document written in English which aims to help people register in Poland.

These documents (probably) have all the information the reader needs to know, but they have been written without thinking about the reader. This is the classic approach of officialdom and tick-box writing – have I included this? Did I cover that topic? But this approach ignores the reason for writing – to help the reader know what they want to know. ‘Have I included this?’ should be ‘what will help the reader?’

One easy change to the documents which will show that the writer has thought about the reader’s needs and will help the reader would be to change the title and headers into questions. This is a simple change that brings big results.

So, what I’ve done here is taken all of the titles and headers and thought of questions or other language forms that would: (a) say the same thing, and (b) respond to real-life questions someone might actually have.

Title/text from the documentRe-drafted to help the reader.
Registration of residence of a citizen of the EUIf you live in the EU, how do you register your stay/the place where you live?
Required documentsWhat documents do you need to register?
Furthermore, the following should be submittedWhat other documents do you need?
In the case of performing workIf you work:
In the case of work on a self-employment basis within the territory of the Republic of PolandIf you are self-employed in Poland:
In the case of studying or undergoing vocational trainingIf you are studying:
In the case of marriage to a Polish citizenIf you are married to a Polish citizen:
In cases other than specified in points 1-4 aboveIf points 1-4 don’t apply to you, you need to bring:

My revisions have used simple question forms, simple conditional structures, and more verbs; whilst making each point ‘human’ by referring to ‘you’ i.e. the reader. The redrafts have removed the abstract. In short, the redrafts say the same thing, but in a way that is easier for the reader to understand and therefore easier to find information.

Why was this not done in the first place?

There are many reasons for bad writing, so it’s difficult to point to just one in this case, but I don’t think ‘deliberately making the reader’s life more difficult’ is one of them. This writing is just another example of abstract bureaucratic writing.

However, the good news is there are fantastic precedents, at government level, that do make readers’ lives easier. One is the excellently designed gov.uk – the UK government’s award-winning website, and almost all US federal government websites. In the US, this was forced by the enactment of the Plain Language Act 2010. In the UK, the website was created to combine thousands of websites into one and improve the user experience.

Both required a different way to approach communication, yet the different approaches ended with the same result – websites and helpful documentation that thinks about the reader. A lesson that all governments and ministries can learn from.

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