Iva Cheung talks about plain language, accessibility, and cartooning

Iva Cheung is a Certified Professional Editor (Editors Canada), an indexer, a print designer, and a publishing consultant. She specializes in plain-language editing in health and is working on her PhD in mental health research. Many editors and writers are familiar with her cartoons about the editorial experience. 

CMOS: The “plain language” movement has been around for some time, right? Is there progress?

IC: I guess that depends how you define progress! Karen Schriver, a researcher of information design and plain language, recently published a wide-ranging history of the movement in the US between 1940 and 2015,* and she found that the movement is no longer simply about whether people can understand and use content. Today plain-language practitioners focus on the persuasiveness and trustworthiness of a document as well as its clarity. Schriver’s view is that over the seventy-five years she studied, a cultural change has taken place that has helped increase awareness and acceptance of plain language.

I’ve started a much smaller effort to compile an oral history of the plain-language movement in Canada between 1980 and 1995. It’s still quite early in my project, but the people I’ve talked to so far have mixed feelings about where the movement is now. Some are optimistic about its trajectory, pointing to plain-language conferences, training, and legislation that didn’t exist thirty years ago. Others see a fractured, halting effort that doesn’t have enough coherence to be properly called a movement.

But I do think there’s been progress. I find I have to explain the concept of plain language much less than I did even five years ago. In the European Union, beginning in October 2018, all results from clinical trials must include a plain-language summary. Many academic journals and research funding agencies are asking academics for lay summaries of their work. And in the health sector, we’re seeing policy makers push for patient-oriented research and patient-centered care, both of which require moving toward plain language and clear communication to improve health literacy.

I talk about plain language in health and research a lot just because that’s what I know best, but a similar shift seems to be happening in law, government, and business.

CMOS: Is awareness of the problem sometimes enough to solve it, or do most offenders need professional editorial help?

IC: Awareness is better than no awareness, but simply knowing that your writing could be more accessible doesn’t necessarily help you understand how to get there. To some subject-matter experts, what they know has become so obvious and intuitive that they’ve forgotten how they developed their understanding and have a hard time helping others get to the same place. Skilled editors can help them fill in some of those gaps.

CMOS: How is plain-language editing different from traditional editing for style and structure?

IC: Plain-language editing focuses on audience needs, backed up by user testing. Checklists for common problems like wordiness and jargon can help, but whether a document achieves plain language depends on audience and context, since what’s plain to one person may not be plain to another. The only way to find out whether you’ve hit the mark is to ask a sample of the intended readers.

CMOS: You’re an editor and a writer, and you cartoon about editing and writing. You must have thoughts about visual presentation and graphic design. Does plain language overlap with or include issues of visual presentation?

IC: Yes! Some people in the plain-language community wish we used a different term, like “clear communication,” to show that we’re concerned with more than just language, but I think “plain language” is so widespread that it might be here to stay.

According to the International Plain Language Working Group’s definition of the term, a document is in plain language if intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information to meet their needs.

Graphic design has a huge role to play: for instance, breaking up a wall of text makes a document more inviting to read; headings help readers navigate a document and quickly find the information they’re looking for; and images can enhance understanding. Good design is integral to plain language.

CMOS: Do you have an example of how rewriting something in plain language affected a real-life situation?

IC: Joseph Kimble collected notable plain-language success stories in his book Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please. I especially appreciate his example of a revised form letter sent by the Veterans Benefits Administration. Introducing the plain-language version cut the number of calls about that letter by more than a factor of five, leading to an estimated savings of $40,000 for one document alone.

CMOS: So there are financial incentives for plain language as well as obvious social and practical motivations.

IC: That’s right. I don’t have the same kinds of metrics for most of my own work, but I’m working with a team to revamp a government form meant to tell involuntary patients about their rights under mental health legislation, and in our user testing, people who’ve had contact with the mental health system have told me they find our material more accessible, less intimidating, and easier to understand than the original. Whereas the legalese in the original document reinforces the power imbalances between health-care providers and patients, our revised version tries to redress that imbalance in a way that might help patients become more engaged in their own recovery. Plain language doesn’t just help convey information; it can dramatically change how a person feels about that information.

CMOS: What are two great ways for a writer or editor to start thinking in plain language?

IC: If I had to boil it down to two ways, I would say (1) respect your reader, and (2) keep the language conversational.

To me, thinking in plain language involves imagining that you’re speaking face to face and one on one with someone who doesn’t happen to know about your topic. If you think of your writing that way, you’ll be more inclined to address the reader directly and adopt an approachable, noncondescending tone—which is a key ingredient that most documents in corporate-speak, legalese, and academese lack.

And by respect, I mean respect for the reader’s time as well as intelligence. Don’t frustrate them with unnecessary information, jargon, ambiguous phrasing, or complex constructions they’ll have to reread to figure out. They’ve got other stuff to do!

Iva Cheung can be found online via her website, IvaCheung.com, and on Twitter (@IvaCheung).


*Karen A. Schriver, “Plain Language in the US Gains Momentum: 1940–2015,” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 60, no. 4 (December 2017): 343–83, https://doi.org/10.1109/TPC.2017.2765118.

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Author photo: Don Mottershead. Cartoons: © Iva Cheung.

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