Claiming something is written plainly does not make it so

I came across this sentence recently:

The text provides, in plain English, an overview of what is necessary to give effect to a valid advanced care directive, and through illustrative and contemporary examples, enhances our understanding of the importance of “planning ahead”.

I don’t think many plain language professionals would say this is plainly written, despite the claim. When you have written plainly, you do not need to tell people you have done so – it will be obvious to your readers. They will be engaging with your ideas, not your writing. (reminds me of one of my other guiding principles: Never trust anyone who has to say “Trust me”.)

Some particular problems:

  • ‘to give effect to’: This is an uncommon and somewhat pretentious phrase, likely to put many readers off. Its use is unclear – it has the immediate sense of ‘how to write an advanced care directive’, but the literal meaning is ‘when your advanced care directive becomes operational’.
  • ‘an overview of what is necessary’: Too wordy.
  • ‘enhances our understanding of the importance of’: Too wordy.
  • ‘illustrative and contemporary’: Big words where small ones will do.
  • Many ideas in a sentence that is too long. As a rule of thumb: one point, one sentence.

A possible rewrite:

This booklet explains how to make an advanced care directive. The examples show how planning ahead is very important.

Can you provide a better rewrite? I’ll leave this post open for comments for a while.

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One thought on “Claiming something is written plainly does not make it so

  1. Great article. I have worked with the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association on their “Speak Up” advance care planning campaign, and we have used a number of tools in plain language to help people understand advance directives. It’s always a challenge when we run into groups that want to nail down every legal aspect right in the beginning (there’s a place for that), scaring people off the document/tool right from the start. For our interactive workbook, we said:
    “This interactive workbook will help you complete an advance care plan that outlines your wishes about health care decisions in the event you are unable to do so. It uses five steps to help you consider what is important to you, help you document your beliefs and wishes, and help you develop the advance care plan that best suits you.”

    We also used the following:
    “This workbook contains tips for having conversations with others about your wishes for care at the end of life. It also includes information about making a plan, understanding medical procedures and a sample plan.
    You can use the workbook to help get the conversation started.”

    Note that this doesn’t say ‘advance directive’ or ‘advance care planning’ right away (terms that are not necessarily known by the reader) – instead we outline what the workbook can do for the reader. Thanks for your article!

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