Often when I’m rewriting a document in plain language, the version I come back with prompts its original writers to reflect on what it was they were trying to say in the first place. When they see how I have interpreted what they wrote, it gives many people pause.

Fortunately – and probably evidenced by their hiring me to start with – many authors will willingly join me on the journey to a clearer way to explain things.

But there have been several times – usually when I was an in-house editor – where people have told me that they’re certain their readers will understand complex terms. It’s usually by virtue of their audience’s familiarity with the subject that they think people will understand industry terms.

I will admit to having let many of those terms get through my filter. Often I have suggested adding a box or other text that defines those words further – ‘just in case there are a few out there who can’t understand this important term.’ But where there was time in the project and other conditions (read: the political environment) permitted, we did field tests with sample readers.

Some bold folks at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation are taking this even further. Their Divisions of Public Affairs and Education and others actually surveyed their employees to gauge their knowledge of the jargon used in their publications.

Read more on what they have been learning so far at the excellent Writing Matters blog; and check back there for more reports as the survey concludes.

(Thanks to colleagues from the Editors’ Association of Canada who shared the above-linked article.)