Mark Hammer

As someone who works in employee surveys, I can attest that there is a perpetual battle between the policy folks, and language they use (which is often highly legalistic), and the front-line folks who need to frame/phrase things from the perspective of the citizen/employee. The two example 3s illustrate this nicely. The “before” example is what our policy and procedures requires of you, while the “after” example is dictated more by what you might be thinking at this moment.

At the risk of taking a huge digression, nearly 25 years ago I attended a talk by world-class authority on text comprehension Walter Kintsch (from U of Col at Boulder). Kintsch noted that he had recently (at that time) had cause to consult some software documentation for something he hadn’t used in a while. In contrast to the harsh criticisms directed at software documentation (and this was the era where “For Dummies…” books were beginning), he said they were actually surprisingly well-written. However, he noted, they were written from the perspective of an expert, not a novice, and unless you already were an expert, you’d likely find them incomprehensible, not organized according to your present needs, and not explained in any useful fashion. That insight into official documentation of any sort, whether software documentation, or tax forms, is no less true today than it was in the 80’s or eras before then.

So, while the legislation itself is supportive, the step that people have to learn to take, be granted permission to take, and actually take, is to consult with novices regularly, so as to understand what they need and want to know, and not just leave it at what you want to tell them. The basis of good writing of any sort is always being able to anticipate your reader, and the varieties of preparation they may have.