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[this article was originally published in March 2009 on my website:]

Watch this blog week-after-next to hear what happened after we paid this ticket…

This morning I was grumpily mailing payment for a traffic fine. It’s the kind of work I often put off for too long – more than a handful of times I can recall finding a way-past-due bill at the bottom of my To Be Filed basket. So this time, I was resolute to just get ‘er done.

We planned to protest the other two tickets, but this third was one of those ‘failure to produce’ offences, of which we were indeed guilty. True to form, I had thrown my insurance renewal in said basket, then quickly lost track of it. So, I had neglected to tear off and insert into mine and my husband’s wallets the new pink insurance slip – procrastination had done me in once more.

But not today. Today would be different. Having written the cheque, found and checked off the box where I plead guilty, signed the ticket and extracted the proper-sized envelope, I was all set to banish this bit of administrivia from my life for good. And then it happened…

The ticket itself is already written in about 6-point type. However, as if to compensate they’ve taken the trouble of including their mailing address three times, and in bold. (If you looked at the French, you would get to see it six times.)

Only problem? Nowhere in any of these addresses had they included their postal code.

personquestionSmall detail, big inconvenience

My first reaction is severe annoyance. If the Ontario Court has such an interest in getting their money, they would at least make a few more points of space for that important detail.

Now I have to get onto the Postal Code look-up site, type in their address and wait for it to appear. An annoyance, but reasonably easy to address since I’ve had the site bookmarked as I often use it for business reference.

But think about all of the types of people that live in a large metropolis like the Greater Toronto Area. Sure, many of them likely have access to a computer; or, if they’re at work, they could also look up the postal code in the book (assuming they still publish these). This assumes that everyone getting a ticket has the literacy skills to navigate the tiny print and legalistic language of their Offence Notice in the first place.*

If someone has the time, they could also make their way to the nearest Post Office, and look up the Postal Code there or ask someone else to help – a not-so-welcome prospect in mid-January. Maybe they assume that someone getting a traffic ticket will simply drive their way over, so the cold’s not a factor. Meantime, the time ticks away without the Ontario Court getting their money.

Well, my inner rant continued, but at least the thing was now stamped and ready for the mail. But then, it gets more fun.

Before I hit the mailbox, my husband shoved a few papers toward me: the covering sheets he’d gotten with the tickets. It turns out, they had also taken the trouble to provide instructions to help payers complete the process. It was better-worded than the ticket, and used much more whitespace to separate the information.

The plot further thickens…

Thinking maybe I’ve been too hard on them, I start reading the covering sheets, and immediately my eye is drawn to the address that’s centred and in bold. Same as they’d done with the ticket. But wait a cotton picking minute! This address is different from the one on the ticket, which I’ve now written on my envelope having located that missing Postal Code.

Oh yes, and it also looks from this new slip like they want me to make the cheque out to persondocumentsomeone different: Toronto Court Services, not the Ontario Court of Justice. Grrr. Now I must open the envelope as well as re-address it (I’ll be damned if I’m gonna try to pry that stamp off now!) So now I’m supremely annoyed, and my mind turns to the idea from our title: can I now ticket the Ontario Court for ‘Failure to produce a postal code for remitting Offence Notice?’ (translation: giving insufficient and inconsistent information to those needing to pay their *^%$ fine already)?!?

After all, I did in fact possess the missing document, and could have produced it within the 24 hours they often give people in missing license cases (in fact now that I think of it, I should have fought this ticket too!). So too does the Ontario Court surely have access to its own postal code. And I do charge by the hour for my time. Do I have the right to mail them a ticket – how about for the same $65 they’ve asked of me? – charging them with the offence of wasting my time and possibly that of many others trying to navigate these documents?

Likely not. But maybe I’ll mail them my marketing package and see if they’ll let me help them straighten things out.

  • A Google search of “Ontario Court plain language” yielded some positive signs that departments within this massive government organization is getting the clarity message. Like any important change within a complex organization, the move to plain language in all public documents will likely continue, albeit slowly.

Keep watching this blog to hear what happened after we paid this ticket…


What is it that makes a document ‘plain language’? Is it that the writers use hundred-dollar words instead of million-dollar ones? Is it that the font is bigger and easy to read? Is it that the finished document tests at the Grade 6 level, rather than reading like an academic research paper or a wordy legal contract?

It’s all of these things, and so much more.

My first few years as a plain language editor focused on taking all of the information in a document, then editing it – often sentence by sentence – into language that more people could understand. I also added basic elements of design, organization, formatting and layout to make the document easier to navigate.

The end result was certainly better than the original – but was it really going to be effective?

Lessons learned from the trenches…
Again, clear writing should for certain show attention to all of the above elements. But to communicate the message you want to send, you also need to observe appropriate boundaries.

By way of demonstration, witness some of the hard lessons learned from seeing
the messages I’d so carefully crafted miss the mark:

  • Sometimes telling it like it is only makes your message sound more harsh or negative. Often writers balk at even releasing the information once they see how someone might interpret the plainer words. Then you have to strategize about how to say something without reaping unwanted negative feedback.
  • Similarly, when it comes to protecting the image of a company, sometimes information that is too plain can open the business up to undesired negative attention. For example, publishing a photo of your CEO reveling at a company event may make her look more approachable and human – but it can also open her up to criticism for letting it hang too loose during business events.
  • Information that is very easy-to-read may end up being way too long, since often it takes more words to say things plainly, and more space to separate ideas into manageable units. If this drives up budgets, or makes the length discouraging for readers, you may have to split your piece up into separate, more focused units.
  • It makes no sense to rewrite anything in plain English if it’s not the information the reader needs. Often, you need to go beyond simply rendering same the information at a different grade level. Does your information transmit the key messages you want people to get? Does it state or inspire the actions you want the reader to take after they read it? If not, you may have to go back to square one.
  • Your message may be very clear, well chosen, the right length and tone – but if not delivered using the suitable medium, it might not get read. Or, it could be read differently than how you intended. For example, it’s never a good idea to use e-mail to try to resolve conflict or announce major change* – your over-attention to formality and tone may make you sound overly-apologetic, not credible (assuming people can find your message among the scores of subject lines in their Inboxes).

Clear writing experts usually encourage a field test to make these situations less likely. But practical (i.e., budget and time) concerns intervene more often than not to make that last step a challenge. Fortunately, experience does have a way of giving communicators the ongoing feedback that improves their results over time.

Clear, useful information accounts for much more than simply functioning as a direct ‘translation’ from one type of English to another. Trust someone with the experience to know how to transmit your message both plainly and effectively.

To learn more about what plain language is, where it’s important, and who provides these kinds of services, visit the website of the Plain Language Association International.


* For more on choosing the right medium for your messages, see advice from U.S. experts in The Larkin Pages:

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