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How’s this for plain language?

The last time I had a blog in 2007, the final post was called Gone fishin’. I was done with that first iteration and decided not only to go fish … but also to jump ship. I wasn’t digging the blog tool I’d chosen, and my business was taking up more of my extra time.

This time ’round, I’m in a similar boat (along with using too many nautical metaphors).

Writing and editing is what I do for my work the rest of the time, and it’s taken on greater steam.

Fortunately, I get to spend even more time writing for clients now as SimplyRead continues to take on larger-scale plain-language projects. And I’m ramping up to get involved in prep for International Plain Language Day October 13. But it’s lately left precious little time for Messages (and for you, if you’re a regular follower).

My bulb’s burnt out

But the clincher has been health-related. Along with the normal stresses of managing a business and life with two young kids in the expanding suburbs, years of battling chronic food sensitivities have doused much of my already-flickering flame. In plain language: to balance out my energy, I need to do fewer things better, eat more meat and carve out more Me Time.

So I’m taking a break from this space for awhile. But I continue to find and and share new info and critical thinking about plain language, simpler processes and communications. You’ll find me on the SimplyRead facebook page and on our Twitter feed.

Can’t figure out what to have for dinner? Maybe it’s decision fatigue.

Before I run off, here’s something that’s grabbed and held my attention. It turns out that I’m not alone in my predicament. If you ask researchers Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, many of us struggle with what they call ‘decision fatigue’ when their lives get too demanding.

This problem stems from the number of decisions each of us is faced with in today’s more complex, information-soaked world. Here’s my version: Daughter asking “Mom, what’s for dinner tomorrow?” while I respond to a client’s text, seated in front of my bank’s log-in screen, while my toddler pulls on my shirt and the phone buzzes in the background. According to Baumeister and Tierney, the commonness of multi-tasking – and the self-denial that come with all that stress – greatly impact on our personal self-discipline and willpower.

Common life patterns can compromise our willpower – who knew?

As discussed at length in this New York Times article, it’s harder for people in our times to maintain healthy willpower and make good decisions. Choosing among so many options all the time just burns out our brains.

Those of us who operate without enough money are more susceptible to decision fatigue, since the number of times we have to decide between tempting options goes up.

Does your willpower swim wit’ da fishes at certain times of the day?

Similarly afflicted are people who spend their days in back-to-back meetings, only getting to catch up at the day’s end when their energy is sapped.

Worse, they’re probably hungry (or more often, ‘hangry!’). Baumeister and Tierney say the amount of glucose is another key factor in these capacities.

This sudden limit to our better  judgment is a good explanation for why people on diets often break them: People who have to deny themselves so many things will eventually find their resources for self-regulation severely depleted … and their heads in the freezer scoping out the Haagen Dazs.

It’s also blamed for all those times we’ve heard about the outstandingly successful person who blew it all on that one bad decision … (now take a second to remember the last one in the Financial Times or TMZ that you went all schadenfreude about …).

Now that alone is a good enough reason for my Serious Need To Chill. If all these other brilliant people have gone off the deep end, I’d better get my own house ship shape lest I end up in the same kettle of fish.*

Let’s stay connected!

Until we get our blogging mojo back, if you like what you’ve seen here you can still enjoy tweets, news, musings and more to help you ‘cut the churn’:

* I should probably work on some new metaphors too, huh?


Today in an article I wrote, I got the classic example of a ‘reverse Before & After.’

Often plain language writers will use these types of examples: the original sentence or paragraph alongside the simpler, clearer alternative.

Well today, I got back an edit from someone I’d interviewed for an article about a technical medical subject. His edit – or After version – looked more like what I would use as a Before. Read for yourself:

My version:

The study launched in September intends to better understand these syndromes to help paediatricians identify them – and set patients on the path to proper treatment sooner.

His version:

The study launched in September intends to gather new data about the presentation of these disorders while raising awareness in the medical community.  It is hoped that earlier identification of patients will also facilitate initiation of effective treatment.

This is one of those situations where a writer needs to tactfully defend their original choice, while ensuring the reviewer understands the reason for the simpler language. Wish me luck!

My poor mom.

She just bought a brand-new laptop, and while you’d think that it being brand-new would mean it was easier for her to use, this is not at all the case.

It’s got all the bells ‘n’ whistles: Windows 7, built-in Webcam and mic for Skyping, a gorgeous 17″ screen…you name it, it’s got it. And because she lives in a condo, she’s got the plug-and-play hi-speed cable connection. Heck, the workhorse I use for my work doesn’t do half of what hers does, and all she wants it for is to get her e-mails and print the odd photo.

But with all that sexy stuff comes the complication of having to understand why all the dialog boxes keep popping up, asking whether she wants to update this or load that.

My husband – who knows a lot about such things – actually recommended she buy this computer because it will take her into the future, even if she doesn’t at present feel that she wants to go there. And knowing that her computer literacy was limited, he went through and installed a virus checker and turned off some of the applications that require regular user intervention, before she started using it; he knew she wouldn’t use those, and that it would just intimidate and confuse her to see all these dialog boxes popping up or have apps running that she didn’t need. She already feels intimidated when she has to so much as unplug the thing, thinking that something will go wrong and she won’t be able to fix it.

But still, she phones us once in awhile to say she got a message and doesn’t know what to do with it: Mozilla is asking her if she wants the newest Firefox; she needs to download the newest Windows update; her printer software is warning her that it will only operate for free 24 more times, then she’ll have to buy a copy. It’s got her flustered, to say the least.

This with a very stripped-down system set-up.

At one point, my husband asked for the original Windows disks while he was setting up her system. She didn’t have them. “The computer comes with Windows installed,” she informed him. So no disks. If she wants those, she’ll have to pay more. And if she ever has a problem with Windows, she’ll be stuck without those disks. But no-one at the store told her that.

Oh, but there is help. The HP Advisor box keeps popping up, too, cautioning my mom that if she wants X to happen, she’ll have to do Y. Only problem: she doesn’t have the knowledge to know what they mean when they refer to her ‘browser.’ And because the message is coming from the HP Advisor, it must be important and well-meaning, so she’s tempted to just accept everything it says; except she can’t understand what she’s being asked to do.

“I didn’t know what it meant,” she tells me, “so I just kept clicking ‘No'”

Why haven’t we figured this out yet? Does everyone who purchases a computer and doesn’t speak technocratese still have to put up with the confusion caused by unhelpful pop-ups and computer dealers who don’t tell you everything you need to know?

My take on it, and what I told my mom? It’s partly because people who are even semi-comfortable with technology assume we’ve all gotten past the point of not knowing what ‘installed’ and ‘browser’ means. And, it’s partly because there are still lots of more tech-savvy folks who stand to benefit financially – and perhaps feel better about themselves – each time a person like my mom doesn’t know why her computer is not doing what she wants it to.

Having been grappling with a working maternity leave and the time waste generated by some unhelpful, bureaucratic systems (and of course, it’s people that create these systems), I’ve not gotten as far as planned on my new series of posts about same.

So, while I play catch-up and hope for time to be more productive on this in future, here’s a quick example.

Today I called the office of my daughter’s stomach specialist, with whom my husband and I are working closely at present. I was greeted with an example of why people sometimes feel alienated by the health system.

This was my third time calling them since last week, as I needed to rebook my daughter’s appointment and knew that I’d need to call right away to reschedule something reasonably soon.

After informing me in the typical passively-voiced notice that “All referrals made to this clinic are required by a doctor,” the recording dutifully announced that their offices would be closed until August 3, and that callers were not to leave messages on this voicemail but rather should call back when their offices re-opened.

Except I was calling them on the fifth. And, I’d already left a message on the third, since no-one had answered then, either, and I had to somehow leave word that I would not be there on the fourth.

Let’s see how long it takes me to hear back from them now. And, let’s see if they also try to hit me with a cancellation charge for not having informed them on a timely basis. Groan…

Girl Welcomed To Womanhood With 4-Page Pamphlet

The Onion’s witing style is more for comedic purposes, the scenario in this story is still not all that far from reality in some education and healthcare settings.

Fortunately, many more good communicators and health practitioners are finding plainer – and more balanced – ways to educate people about what’s going on in their bodies, and in their world.

Visit the SimplyRead Links page to learn about a few of them. We plan to keep adding more links, so please check back again soon!

Here’s an example of how a wordy, negative paragraph could be recast more plainly and positively:

Elaborate or unnecessarily voluminous offers are not desired. Offerors are encouraged to take care in completely answering questions and offer requirements and to avoid submitting extraneous materials that do not show how the offeror is able to meet requirements.

Please keep your proposal brief, focusing only on answering the questions in this RFP and showing how you meet our requirements.

Would that have been so difficult?

I heard CFRB radio news refer to the increased Internet surveillance being introduced Thursday, saying that it was ‘high time to modernize Internet laws.’

Hmmm…”Modernizing Internet laws” = (choose one)

– another way of making the many pay for the sins of the few, via higher ISP costs?

– a necessary evil if it protects children from abuse?

– a serious threat to privacy and other civil liberties?

No matter which of these you agree with – if any – the chosen ‘official’ term sure is flattering language for something that many have already said they are very worried about.  > Read more on CBC

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