Immersed in Plain Language for Three Days
Updated: May 15
At the Access For All virtual conference
Plain language practitioners and followers from all over the world met at the Access for All virtual conference on May 11–13, 2021. I was one of the +400 participants.
Each of the three days emphasized a different aspect of plain language. Here are some highlights from the wave of new information I took from each day.
Design: comics style documents on the rise
From cutting up "walls of text" into well laid out paragraphs (page design) to contracts drawn in comics style, adding visuals has an enormous impact on the readability of a document. I learned of many options we have available to make a greater impact when our information is provided in a plainer version. We have a lot more resources to choose from than you might think!
Literacy: plain legal language in Nigeria
Did you know italics are harder to read than the regular font? The Australian Style Guide is already steering away from it. I also learned how a Nigerian lawyer improved legal literacy to help reshape economies. How? By using several social media platforms explaining complex law matters in plain language.
Practice: dinosaurs in South Africa
In science: Due to its past of being colonized, the Zulu language does not have any scientific words. One speaker described how he translated a science article on dinosaurs from English or Afrikaans into Zulu. By describing the scientific words he created access to science for the greater Zulu community. As a side benefit he could now also produce a clearer, plainer version of the scientific topic when translated back into English.
In law: The Canadian Social Security Tribunal writes decisions that people can actually understand. The tribunal achieves this by changing the order in which the decisions are written and by using plain language. Those who want to know more can read the footnotes with additional information, like the legal phrases or more detailed explanations. Providing several levels of information within one document is known as layering. The reader can choose their preferred level.
Real mingling in virtual times
It was wonderful to follow the many interesting webinars—some live, but all recorded— you could watch content whenever it was most convenient to you. The virtual World Café gave us the opportunity to “mingle” live in small groups, while being in different time zones. The Café was open twice a day on each conference day.
I found that it really paid off to right away watch as many webinar sessions as I could. That way, I could bring up questions with the speakers or fellow attendants in the small settings of the World Café. I sure witnessed some valuable conversations turn into true brainstorming sessions! It was also nice to be able to just listen to live music at one of the Café's tables.
Language is not just about words
One of my biggest takeaways was that plain language is not just about words. It is also about visual design, empathy, and yes, extra effort to reach your reader in a way they prefer. Simple is hard. No matter what angle the webinars covered, they all had one thing in common: writers have to focus on how they bring their message across based on their audience’s needs.
Information overdose? No problem!
It all proved to be too much information to absorb in just three days. But what a great problem to have, as the conference content will be accessible to us attendees until the end of 2021. If you would like to know more or you have any questions, please get in touch with me.
Merel Elsinga is a copy editor, proofreader, and advocate of plain language based in Sidney (BC), Canada. She has a background in Dutch law and a post-professional lingering passion for sailing and cooking. Her mission is to help lawyers create plain language contracts.