The Plain Language Wizard
Many of you may know Cheryl Stephens and her editing skills. Cheryl taught me Structural Editing and Stylistic Editing at Simon Fraser University (SFU).
Honestly, I was intimidated to take the courses. Cheryl can slash, cut, and burn unwanted words and sentences, and restructure a document in a flash with her magic wand—impressive indeed! But it’s not magic; it’s experience.
Cheryl has many accomplishments in a career dedicated to Plain Language communications:
- She has published several books on Plain Language in hard and e-copy, and Rapport: News about Plain Language through the 90s.
- In the early 80s, she worked as a lawyer, and as a legal educator. Her work as a legal editor brought her to plain language.
- In 1990, she helped develop a training course for lawyers.
- In 1993, she co-founded, with Kate Harrison, the Plain Language Consultants Network which evolved into the Plain Language Association International Network (PLAIN). The two women later founded International Plain Language Day which is celebrated world-wide each October 13 and is now managed by PLAIN.
- She co-chaired PLAIN conferences: Winnipeg 1995, Calgary 1997, Houston 2000, and Vancouver 2013.
- Cheryl has been an innovator and early adopter of technology and social media. She set up Plain Language On line in 1993. She also ran PLAIN’s list serve and internet discussion group and set up their first website.
Ms. Stephens. Thank you for agreeing to the interview for Capital Letters.
Q. What was the biggest motivator for you to leave a legal career to become an editor?
Frankly, I burnt out on law practice. I had always wanted to teach adults, so I got involved in paralegal education. An opportunity arose to supervise paralegals while spending half my time on legal editing to set up a document bank. Editing legal materials would drive anybody toward embracing plain language.
Q. Did you have any difficulty persuading your legal colleagues to accommodate plain language?
I had to persuade them to create a style guide and it took a year of committee meetings to work that out. I characterized it as modernizing and rationalizing their templates.
Q. Are you the original initiator of plain language writing in Canada?
A. No, not at all. I was late to the game. I only learned about plain language from an article written about the 1999 Canadian tour by Australia’s innovator Robert Eagleson. But the federal government and Manitoba, Alberta, and Ontario were already at work on plain language.
Q. Accessibility started years ago with streets and sidewalks. Is Communication Accessibility the new kid on the block?
A. Yes, we have a right to understand. The internet has given us website and content accessibility and standards. Ontario’s disability law provides the right to usable information. The proposed Canadian Accessibility Act will cover communication. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes the role of plain language and provides that when an institution is required to provide information, it needs to be understandable.
The Facets of the General Public as Audience
(Cheryl co-authored this paper with Mariah Stufflebeam in February 2017)
Q. You refer to the audience and the reader as a “multifaceted diamond with a multitude of complexities including physical, emotional, intellectual, and mental challenges”. How can we ever, as writers and editors, possibly address all these issues without becoming blocked?
A. Perhaps you cannot. But you can:
- Find out as much as you can about your readers and cater to them. Some disabilities and challenges have specific guidelines for communication. Google their needs as readers.
- Become aware of the many challenges facing even competent adult readers and be as simple and clear as you can be.
Q. Many people don’t think about communication when they think of accessibility. In your paper you point out that 48% of Canadians are lower level readers. Is grade six still the level we should consider standard for plain language writing?
A. I am going to start refusing to discuss school-grade reading levels although there is chapter about them in my book Plain Language in Plain English.
The International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) is the best framework for discussing reading abilities. These are the levels they have described:
Level 1 – difficulty reading, few basic skills or strategies for decoding and working with text
Level 2 – limited skills, can read, but not well and can only deal with simple material, clearly laid out
Level 3 – can read well but may have problems with more complex tasks
Levels 4 & 5 – strong literacy skills, including a wide range of reading skills, many strategies for dealing with complex materials (only about 3% of readers are at highly skilled readers at level 5)
Level 3 is the target audience for clear communication. The Canadian government says that Level 3 is the minimum level to function in modern society. The Conference Board of Canada has said that people in the top half of level 3 are employable in an information society. That 48% is the readers at Levels 1 and 2, people who avoid reading or seek help with documents.
People at level 4 will be grateful for clarity of information. As you know from reading the paper, even readers with level 4 skills can suffer situational low literacy.
Q. To what extent does an editor correct an author’s work to make the communication accessible as described in the paper?
A. The editor is the reader’s advocate. The editor must negotiate terms with the author, in the best interests of the reader.
Q. In your paper you indicate that more than 50% of medical patients have trouble understanding medical information. Do you know of initiatives by health ministries or hospitals to address plain language issues?
A. Yes, there are many initiatives in Canada, the US, and UK. The term used in that field is health literacy which encompasses the communication responsibilities of professionals and institutions.
Q. Do you think that editors and writers should routinely create personas of their readers for everything they write or edit? Would there be exceptions?
A. Not routinely, but whenever one needs reminding of a particular reader or a diversity of readers. Personally, I have not used them, but they have been useful tools for teaching—for getting editors to think about their readers.
Q. Your resource posters from the UK are very helpful. How long have the UK and other countries been advocating for plain language in communication.
A. The recent story of plain language starts from the consumer rights movement in the 70s. There was a convergence of interest in plain language from literacy advocates and proponents of access to justice in the 80s.
Plain Language Association International Network (PLAIN)
Q. In 1993 you co-founded Plain Language Consultants Network. How did this evolve into PLAIN?
A. After being its coordinator for 7 years, I was able to hand it over to others who changed the name and incorporated. I was on the sidelines while that all happened.
Q. You are a strong advocate of social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. How has this enabled your career?
A. For many years, I dominated the first page of a Google search for plain language. I have gotten many clients from a search that turned up my websites. But my use of the internet and social media has allowed me to make connections internationally that have made my life better and my work easier.
I think anyone needs to limit themselves to just a few platforms and the ones that seem most productive and safe. I do tell my students that they should join online editors’ groups.
Q. You have a following of 18,000 in LinkedIn Group Plain Language Advocates. Does this group promote plain language in an organized way?
A. I had built the LinkedIn Group to 15,000 members before turning it over to PLAIN. I passed on another group for plain language legal writers to Clarity, the international movement for plain legal language. I hope both organizations will be able to maximize the group impact.
Q. What advice do you have for editing students who hope to have a career in editing?
A. Unless you can find a staff position, you must learn to run a small business, do the marketing and networking required, and love the work. And join professional associations.
Q. What does the future hold for you? Do you have any new projects underway?
A. I continue to teach online for SFU and for the Plain Language Academy. I am a subject matter expert with skritswap, Inc. which is developing editing software. I will be presenting at Clarity2018 in Montreal in October. I volunteer with 2 community organizations and I am organizing amateur artists in my neighbourhood.
Thank you for your time, Cheryl. It has been a pleasure and a learning experience to interview you.