I’ve been asked to write a feature for a magazine in subhead format. As a web-journalist and editor I welcomed this refresher. They are critical to getting, keeping and entertaining readers, so I thought I’d share these tips.
Do blogs really need subheads?
Yes. Readers like, are used to and expect small chunks of information on the web, particularly in blogs. It is our responsibility as writers to help lead our readers through our stories, and subheads are important signposts. Search engines also like them, although filling them with keywords is not recommended. Subheads help you target information, promote benefits and inspire action. Hubspot has a great overview.
How do I grab readers' attention with subheads?
With less than 10 seconds to grab the attention of most web readers, it’s important to make subheads work. Smartblogger lists these three tips:
Before: Becoming a freelance writer
After: Why becoming a freelancer was a great idea
The ‘before’ example is simply a regurgitation of the topic that follows.
The ‘after’ example raises interest, makes the reader curious, has readability.
What are the secret ingredients of cooking up great subheads?
Pay attention to the subheads in blogs you enjoyed reading. Look for common characteristics like:
I enjoyed this refresher, and hope you did too.
Plain language editing is the process of making information readable, accessible and actionable by the readers. Plain language editors use clear writing guidelines and user-friendly design criteria to ensure the message really connects with the audience. But sometimes it is challenging to know where to start a plain language edit. Here are some ideas on how to focus on plain language.
Substantive Editing: Organize for the reader
Reduces review time by 40-60%* --Plain language writing and editing leads to less review time. Organizing for easy reading plays a big role.
Decreases production time by 50%*—Focus on conciseness. Train everyone contributing on how to write and edit for less volume. Use a plain language checklist.
Show others how to improve their sentence structure. Most likely they’ve been taught how to write lengthy, descriptive sentence. Explain the benefits of active voice.
Proofreading: Choose the best words
Reduces word count by 40%*--focus on how to get rid of jargon, empty phrases, passive voice, repetition.
You are aiming to create a message that audiences can easily understand, efficiently navigate and effectively act on. So, you need to speak their language, clearly. At the proofreading stage, check for:
Set goals and track progress: Keep data
Increases customer satisfaction by 50%*—research shows clear communications means happy clients
As you go through the editing process, remember to get feedback from real readers, especially at the beginning and end. Track the feedback data for future projects. Save your before and after examples. Plain language is an investment, make sure you get a great return.
Integrating plain language editing guidelines into the style guide you already use is the easiest way to achieve success. The proof is in this plain language process.
Plain Language Association International: PLAIN.org
US Government Plain Language site: www.plainlanguage.gov
*Bold points are from PLAIN President Neil James, Plain English Foundation, Australia, PLAIN 2017 Conference presentation.
Plain language still evokes questions from many clients. What is it all about? How does it work? What benefits are there? You can simply answer the questions. Or, you can ask for some time to do a training exercise to bridge the knowledge gap. This can be anything from a short team training exercise, a learning at lunch program, presentation to key leaders or an event keynote talk. Of course, you can run a workshop. Here are five plain language training options that focus on involving people and integrating it into your communications.
1. Drawing Personas
Audience awareness plays a huge part in plain language. You need a detailed picture of your audience for your team to create, commit to and use throughout the project. Personas involve drawing pictures or creating profiles of your audience using research on their lifestyle, cultural, social, professional and personal activities and values. I find it a fun activity to open a training activity or for team building.
Usability.gov has an excellent description of how to do personas.
2. Develop plain language style guide
Integrating plain language guidelines into an existing style guide or creating a stand-alone guide is a great investment with a long shelf-life. Focus on jargon and simple words that can replace your organizations in-house jargon. Everyone appreciates a writing resource. They save time, create shared techniques, enhance peoples’ skills. Integrating it into an existing style guide increases its value and can be a great stepping stone to a learning event.
BC Government website shares content style guides.
3. Create a plain language checklist
Plain language checklists are available online. Most are very generic. Get your communications and plain language project team together to brainstorm a checklist specific to your task, audience or organization. This increases colleagues’ understanding of, skills for and commitment to plain language.
Plainlanguage.gov offers a checklist guide.
4. Carry out an audit
Without embarrassing or intimidating anyone, carry out a plain language audit. Gather a team and collect a variety of documents or information sources and measure against selected plain language guidelines. Share the findings and as a group come up with recommendations. You'll be coaching and training people throughout the whole process.
IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) shared this guide for audits.
5. Enter a project for an award
Awards offer several opportunities for learning and committing to plain language. It helps see what the standards are in the profession. If you are recognized, you have motivation to carry on with your plans.
PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) offers members ($60/year) opportunities to be recognized at its conferences. Other organizations offer annual awards.
Integrating plain language from the top down is your best way to achieve success.
PlainLanguageAcademy.com has core and advanced courses that cover the whole process.
I recently saw an article stating we haven't made many, if any, major gains in the battle against jargon over the past 25 years. There was proof from all the big players in many sectors. I agree we have a big challenge ahead, but I also feel we can win the fight with a strategic approach that proves the benefits of plain language.
Three ways to win the battle for plain language
1. Show and tell
Build a diary or archive of bad examples made great with plain language writing, editing and design. A picture of plain language results can clearly show someone how to effectively use clear language and readable designs to really connect with clients.
Work closely with your designers, for print, visual and online products, to ensure they understand the techniques of clear design. We too often focus on the written components and forget about the creative.
Back up your claims with benefits.
Create a diverse team of clear communication champions. Identify client, staff or organizational opportunities to improve your communications and decrease time spent fixing problems. Be very open-minded about the membership. Solutions can come from anyone, anywhere. Someone not in a communications role may have excellent ideas, be a great problem-solver, and have unique insights. Plain language is most successful when multiple disciplines have a commitment.
3. Be in it for the long term
Plain language is a bit like starting a new exercise program. It can hurt at first. But, once you make the commitment, you start to see the benefits. You have to make a long term commitment to see the biggest gains.
Show and tell, teamwork and a long term commitment together can help you put, keep and enhance plain language on your organization's agenda. You can expect to meet resistance. You can expect to have lots of chats explaining the process. And, you can win people over by selling the benefits.
Start with an interesting experience
How do you take your life's work and experiences and turn them into a short story? Start by selecting an interesting aspect that your readers can relate to and will be interested in. If they like travelling, select a personal travel story that can help them understand you better.
When I first travelled overseas, I met many people in their 40s and older backpacking on their own. It inspired me to be independent and try new things—forever.
Get up close and personal
Be honest, sincere and personal (write it the first person). But, create a conversation that is more 'about' them, than you. Write less of a resume and more a profile to remember. People remember stories more than details.
Have you ever met someone who changed your life? I've been so lucky to meet great people, like my English prof who got me into journalism, a colleague who got me into training, and a friend who's kept me going.
Write in plain language
Plain language and storytelling were meant for each other. Writing informally, concisely and connecting through words people can understand, that's storytelling, that's plain language.
Before: I have over 25 years of experience as a consultant in the government, private, and non-profit sectors.
After: I love variety. We may even have crossed paths at a public office, a corporate launch or a fund-raising event. Don't you find you can always learn something new, or meet someone with an idea, or get motivated when you're out and about?
Here are some great storytelling ideas for your About section from Susan Greene, Copywriter and The Storyoftelling.
Let me know how it goes.
Plain language is your client service advantage
Plain language, the process of ensuring information meets readers’ needs, is quickly becoming a top skill for freelance writers and editors. Our clients are faced with increased competition and the need to stand out. Plain language benefits for editors include clarity checklists for writing, ways to strengthen the connection between content and clients, and design guidelines for readability. Benefits for your clients include being more effective and efficient at communicating, solving their clients’ problems quickly, and improving staff skills. Words take time, and time is money. So, where do you begin?
How to explain what plain language is?
It is important to understand what plain language is, where to fit it into your services, and how you can promote it to your clients. You may be confronted with the question “What is plain language?” Plain language, or clear communication, is the process of creating print information or online content that meets readers’ needs. We know that organizations struggle to get and keep a client’s attention in today’s competitive marketplace. Following the plain language process helps ensure clients can:
Read the full blog Plain Language is the Editor's Key to Reaching Readers on Indiacopyeditors
What really works?
Regardless of which guidelines you use, what the project focus is, or how much time is available, plain language professionals always put their audience first. As freelance editor Christa Bedwin states in her book, if our audience doesn’t understand what we’ve presented, then we didn’t communicate effectively. Read her Forum blog The Joys of Teaching Engineers to Write to see how plain language can effectively cross borders, professions, and topics. It knows no boundaries. It is a great way to enhance your skills, scope, and services.
Interested in enhancing your skills? Sign up for an online PlainLanguageAcademy.com course.
Are you, your colleagues, or your clients still unclear about just what plain language is and how to explain it? I still get asked, and expect I always will. It's a process, and that takes a strategic approach to explaining. The basic answer is next.
Plain language is a process of creating information that meets the audience's needs to:
How to show the importance of audience
Audience is the heart and soul of plain language. They determine direction. They should guide you with feedback throughout the process. Their satisfaction should be your ultimate goal. I always start a project by working with my client to get a clear picture of the audience. We create a persona—a picture (yes we draw)—of who we are talking to, connecting with, It's important to make sure everyone involved in plain language projects understands the role your audience plays and supports the processes for involving them.
Joel Solomon, Amazon content strategist, explains in his Gathercontent.com video Four Principles of Creating Helpful Content, “You answer the question asked." That is where the plain language writing plan begins.
How to write in plain language
So, you have a general description of plain language—the 'what'. You have committed to putting your audience first— the 'who'. But, how do you write in plain language?
Yes plain language is a process that involves a number of steps to complete. But, writing clearly and concisely are a good places to start. I recommend building a file of your before and after examples to help you sell others on the benefits of investing time in the true plain language process. Let them see the benefits with familiar information. This show and tell will help you clearly explain how plain language writing can better connect with your audience and help achieve the key plain language goals.
Here is Iain Broome's Gathercontent.com video Five plain English tips for writing better everything to help you form a strong base for beginning to write in plain language.
You now have the basics to get started. If you want to learn more, check out the PlainLanguageAcademy.com series of online courses, including Plain Language Basics, Plain Language Writing and Editing, Audience Awareness and Plain Language Design. All are open for registration. More courses are coming.
The theme for this year's International Plain Language Day Oct 13 #IPlainDay is Show and Tell. We need to use the work we do and the successes we make to spread the word about the benefits of plain language. A picture is worth a 1,000 words: seeing the before and after examples of a plain language project can have a huge impact.
Here are this year's 13 shares #plainshare2016 leading up to IPlainDay.
1. #plainshare2016 #plainlanguage improves business processes. Leads to happier clients. Plain Language in Plain English @CherylStephens www.lulu.com/spotlight/email1058
2. #plainshare2016 Ever been frustrated by confusing website links? #Plainlanguage creates client-centred links. http://bit.ly/2dnDlKv
3. #plainshare2016 #plainlanguage is critical to people's well being. Health industry embracing it. Patients demand it.
4. #plainshare2016 Information design impacts online content. Six global experts recommend guidelines. @firstwren
5. #plainshare2016 Legal professionals see #plainlanguage benefits. Like the Consumer Protection Act. bit.ly/2ctCPgs
6. #plainshare2016 Research shows #plainlanguage improves employee and org performance. Reduces time and money.
7. #plainshare2016 From happier customers, to less litigation, #plainlanguage can save time and money. http://bit.ly/2cXvKEg
8. #plainshare2016 Great return on investment. Check out this 9900% ROI on #plainlanguage by Neil James, PLAIN.
9. #plainshare2016 Nearly half of Canadians have literacy levels making reading difficult. #plainlanguage bridges gap.
10. #plainshare2016 #plainlanguage improves brand by making you known for 'accessibility' and being user-friendly.
11. #plainshare2016 #plainlanguage content translates better. @CherylStephens Best Practice: Plain Language article.
12. #plainshare2016 #Health and Safety info is healthier in clear language. US org reduces, removes and rewrites in #plainlanguage http://bit.ly/2dNkOqB
13. #plainshare2016. #plainlanguage learning can be fun! #Shakespeare! Why not? http://bbc.in/2dSBPk1
Use the hashtag #plainshare2016 to find out more.
Last year's International Association Business Communicators (ABC) Toronto and IPLainDay co-hosted Tweet-up was so successful, it is happening again this year. The theme is Show and Tell. The Tweet-up takes place from noon-1 pm Toronto-time (EDT) using the hashtag #plainshare2016. Use this hashtag for any IPlainDay tweets.
When was the last time you publically celebrated your writing or editing? Often writers don't get recognition, publicity or accolades for their work. But, plain language achievements definitely merit celebrating, and that's what International Plain Language Day Oct 13 is all about.
Cheryl Stephens, Plain Language Wizardry, and Kate Harrison Whiteside, Key Advice and the Plain Language Academy, co-founded the first professional organization, now PLAIN. But, with the continued growth in the field, they wanted to celebrate the great work going on globally. Five years ago they launched International Plain Language Day October 13 (the date US government introduced plain language laws).
The IPlainDay 2016 theme is Show and Tell, to encourage writers and designers to inspire others by sharing examples—on bulletin boards, in e-newsletters, at local libraries, during events and on social media.
"So much plain language progress is being made behind the scenes," said Kate Harrison Whiteside. "It is so important that you share your progress and celebrate—it doesn't matter where, when or how, just that you share."
Here are five ways to celebrate the 5th International Plain Language Day Oct 13:
Plain language professionals and marketers know the importance of connecting with audiences in messages they can relate to. But, how do you present those messages in the most meaningful way? You tell a story. The is the marketing focus of the future. It is here to stay. So, how do you adapt your style?
Why is storytelling important?
Echostories.com points to marketing leader Michael Brenner, Newscred, saying storytelling would be the future's number one way to connect with clients. Readers and writers are noting the need to speak directly to people, and connect with them about their interests. This is a cultural change away from delivering the "I want you to buy my goods now, because our stuff is great.' message. It has to be turned around to say: 'You love holidays. Where ever you go, good luggage can make the difference. Let us help you have a smooth, secure journey.' There isn't an 'I', 'my', 'our' in the second examples. Many may find this a hard habit to break. But, the checklist to successful story writing are straightforward.
Storytelling six-point checklist
The first rule is to let your clients lead the way: it's there story, not yours. That's a tough one. But, once you've done it a few times, and had their responses, you'll see its strengths. The second rule is that it that the focus should be on benefits —60% of what you write! Most importantly your story needs:
1. context—reader relevant angle
2. curiosity factor—gets their attention
3. characters—readers relate to
4. conversational style—talk with them, not at them
5. conflict and resolution—problem-solution; question-answer; before-after
6. conclusion that calls for action—set a challenge.
Plain language storytelling
Plain language is all about connecting with your audience. Writing in words they understand. In Business2Community blog on storytelling, 'crisp' is identified as a key writing trait. Is your writing crisp? clear? concise? These are all important factors in plain language ad connecting with readers. And, that's what this story is all about.
TED Talks on storytelling - great stories about storytelling
PlainLanguageAcademy.com - online courses
Kate Harrison Whiteside has over 25 years experience in plain language, writing/editing, training and consulting.