One of our favourite plain language mottos adorns the wall in massive text at Write’s Wellington office. It’s from Sir Ernest Gowers’ book, Plain Words: ‘Be short, be simple, be human’.
It’s a motto that follows its own advice.
In the burgeoning age of ‘AI’ text generation, human writing for human readers is more important than ever. And that makes the WriteMark an even more valuable symbol of people-centric plainness.
Here’s why a quality mark for clear communication matters even more in the age of AI.
The WriteMark has always been a way to show your readers you care.
The heart-shaped symbol demonstrates your commitment to being clear, open, and customer-focused. It signals to your audience that you’ve gone the extra mile to ensure they understand what you’re telling them, which builds trust and confidence.
We think readers will particularly appreciate the WriteMark’s quality promise as AI writing proliferates. AI-generated text risks ‘infecting’ AI training data — the library of information that AI tools use to create their responses. This may degrade the quality of AI outputs over time, as they reinforce and amplify their own distortions and biases. Commentators have called this an ‘AI ouroboros’
In this uncertain future of AI writing, the WriteMark will signify people-centric writing that gives readers confidence and helps to form human connections between author and audience.
In a WriteMark assessment, qualified experts read documents, assess them against 25 carefully selected criteria, and produce a report packed with insights and recommendations. They apply a critical eye, drawing on their experience and understanding — as both writers and readers — to identify what works and what needs work. This experience and insight helps to shape documents that serve their writers — and their readers.
AI can do some incredible things, if you know how best to use it. By drawing from untold libraries of human writing and thought, it can generate convincing text and images in the blink of an eye. It can educate and entertain, adapting its tone and language for any conceivable audience. But AI is not critical, creative, or insightful — not yet.
AI can provide lots of helpful advice for some of the more mechanical aspects of plain language, like sentence structure and word choice. But humans can still do a few things better — like thinking.
‘Artificial intelligence’ is a bit of a misnomer, because tools like ChatGPT and DALL·E 3 are not thinking or creating. They draw on vast sets of training data from the web and use predictive patterns to spit out realistic answers to prompts.
This means AI would struggle to meet or assess some WriteMark criteria, especially big-picture elements. It takes critical thought to determine whether a document has:
AI is improving constantly, and quickly. But answering these questions requires critical analysis and holding the ‘big picture’ in mind — skills that today’s AI tools can only imitate.
Our assessors have another advantage over AI tools — their Kiwi cultural context and sensitivity.
AI tools draw on training data from all corners of the internet. This means they tend to replicate and reinforce existing biases in that data. Aotearoa New Zealand represents a tiny corner of the internet, so our cultural differences are easily overwhelmed by American and European norms in AI’s predictive patterns.
Why does this matter? One element we assess for the WriteMark is whether the document has an appropriate style and tone for its audience. Aotearoa’s cultural context is different from the rest of the world in lots of small ways — as well as the big ones, like the role of te reo and te ao Māori. The words we use and the way we express ourselves are distinct, as are our history, economy, politics, and culture.
AI tools are liable to get these small things wrong, because they draw from the wilderness of the World Wide Web. As well as setting the wrong ‘style and tone’ for our specific cultural context, relying on AI can lead to embarrassing and even offensive errors.
On top of using human experts to assess documents for the WriteMark, we get human non-experts to test how well a document serves its readers for the WriteMark Plus.
User-testing with real readers always uncovers unforeseen sticking points. Human testers can help identify things like:
AI is clever, and convincing. But there’s simply no substitute for testing a document with its target audience.
While human expertise can’t be beaten when it comes to the high standard of the WriteMark, we still recognise the value of this powerful tool.
That’s why Write has added an AI Writing Insights workshop to our roster, and why we’re keeping up to date with advances in the field.
Check out our workshop, AI Writing Insights: Balancing Opportunity and Risk
In June 2023, the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, released Part 1 of its first-ever Plain Language Standard. The ISO Standard offers guidelines for writing in plain language, arranged around four organising principles. These establish that information should be relevant, findable, understandable, and usable.
How does the WriteMark® Plain Language Standard, developed here in Aotearoa New Zealand, compare to the new international standard? Do the two standards have any disagreements?
If your document holds the WriteMark, does it also meet the criteria in the ISO Standard?
Is the WriteMark keeping pace with international best practice?
Let’s answer those questions one by one.
As we pointed out in our blog post on the Write website, the ISO Standard doesn’t include quantitative measures. It doesn’t give users a way to certify documents that ‘meet the standard’.
So, right off the bat, the ISO Standard does something quite different from the WriteMark.
The WriteMark logo shows that we have assessed a document and we recognise its excellence in clarity and presentation. The WriteMark uses 25 criteria to evaluate whether or not a document or website meets a high standard of plain language.
But although they have different purposes, the guidelines in the ISO Standard broadly align to the criteria in the WriteMark.
Here’s an example.
The ISO guideline is more specific, but the WriteMark requirement captures the same intent.
Many of the ISO Standard guidelines go into more detail than the WriteMark criteria. The WriteMark simply asks if a document’s structure is ‘clear and logical to the reader’. The ISO Standard, in comparison, recommends:
These guidelines are all part of a ‘clear and logical’ structure. The guidance in the ISO Standard and requirements of the WriteMark aren’t at odds — they’re doing different things, at different levels of detail.
The ISO Standard and the WriteMark do, however, place emphasis in different areas. These differences are worth exploring.
The first area is the document’s ‘purpose’. For the WriteMark, a document needs to have a clear purpose, and its content needs to support that purpose.
Makes sense, right? We know that documents are most effective when they’re written with a clear goal in mind.
The ISO Standard, however, strongly emphasises the purpose of the reader. Writers should identify their reader’s purpose for reading their document, and put their readers’ needs first.
This also makes a lot of sense! Clear plain language documents put their readers first.
So which perspective is correct? Successful documents will fulfil both their readers’ and writers’ purposes. They’ll achieve what their author needs them to, while being entirely transparent and practical for readers to use.
The question is whose purpose is front of mind, and when. And that will depend on your document, your audience, and, of course, your own purpose for writing.
We explore this question further in another blog on the Write website:
Another distinction between the ISO Standard and the WriteMark is in the idea that documents are ‘cohesive’.
The third principle of the ISO Standard, ‘understandable’, covers what we often think of as ‘language elements’. This means using familiar words, short and active sentences, concise paragraphs, and a reader-friendly tone.
The ISO Standard then collects these elements, along with the structure and headings from the principle of ‘findable’, under an overall direction to ‘Ensure that the document is cohesive’.
This means, in short, make sure all the parts of the document work together. They have clear and consistent relationships. They all serve a common purpose.
Unlike the ISO Standard, the WriteMark doesn’t have any one particular requirement for documents to be cohesive.
We’re already looking at how the elements of a document cohere throughout the WriteMark process. In a WriteMark assessment, we are checking that the words have a cohesive tone, that the structure presents a cohesive whole, and that the presentation elements are consistent and appropriate.
The guidance to write cohesive documents is handy, but as a requirement in the WriteMark it would only duplicate other elements we’re already assessing.
A document can’t ‘meet the ISO Standard’, because the ISO Standard is a set of guidelines, not requirements. But let’s put that technicality aside and rephrase the question in a way that we can answer:
Does a WriteMark document have the same quality of plain language as a document developed using the ISO Standard guidance?
To that we can confidently say, ‘yes’. Documents that achieve the WriteMark will also satisfy the ISO Standard’s organising principles. WriteMark documents are all different, but each one is:
And this relationship goes both ways. If you follow the guidelines in the ISO Standard, you’ll develop a document that’s well on its way to meeting the WriteMark.
Again, we can find some differences in the details, but the two standards are well aligned overall.
For example, to achieve the WriteMark, a document must use mostly positive sentences. The ISO Standard doesn’t mention positive or negative sentences — possibly because it applies across languages, not just English. But its instructions to write concise sentences with a clear structure will ensure they are also mostly positive.
We want to be certain that the WriteMark reflects the best practice in plain language, which means updating it from time to time. The ISO Standard finally arriving after years in the making has been a good prompt for us to make some tweaks.
Following the emphasis in the ISO Standard, we’ve added a cue to the WriteMark assessment to note a document’s purpose and audience. This gets us and our clients thinking about the ISO Standard principle of ‘relevant’.
It’s a reminder to consider:
We’ve also added a reminder to the assessment about making documents cohesive. This notes that a document is cohesive if its language, presentation, and big picture elements all support its purpose and the purposes of its readers.
And we took this opportunity to align the wording in some of the WriteMark criteria more closely with Write’s Plain Language Standard, just to keep things tidy.
This B Corp month (March 2022), Lynda Harris explores links between being a B Corp and using words for good. Write, the company behind the WriteMark and WriteMark Plus, became a B Corp in 2021.
This blog was written for accredited and aspiring B Corps. But the ideas are relevant to all business writers!
Does being a B Corp improve the way you write? It certainly does for some B Corps.
A few years ago, I did a small experiment with some B Corps to see if their focus on being a force for good in the world influenced the way they wrote. And it did! I don’t know if all B Corps write clearly. But I do know that being a B Corp will give you a great head start.
As a plain language professional for over 30 years, with a passion for training people in the art of clear communication, I’d seen some people transform their writing overnight simply by being encouraged to apply the age-old ‘golden rule’. Asking a writer to treat their client as they would like to be treated and ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ sometimes trumped more formal writing techniques. And almost instantly writers produced much clearer, more reader-friendly documents.
Since the notion of honouring ‘people and place’ is baked into B Corps, I wondered if the foundational concepts of care and empathy would naturally translate into a more effective, human-centred writing style from those firms.
So I decided to find out if my hunch was right and interviewed several B Corps. To raise the bar, I picked a sector traditionally known more for obfuscation than clarity — law firms!
Here are some of the inspiring responses to my all-important question, ‘Do your B Corp values, especially your value of care, influence the way you write to clients?’
From Alexandra Doig, Managing Partner of Atticus Lawyers in Melbourne:
Yes! Telling people what they need to know and doing all we can to help, means we need to write like a human. We need to communicate clearly and personally in ways that don’t alienate. We can’t give a client a convoluted document. We have to walk the talk and act on what we believe in.
We could write a 10-page document. We try to write a 1-pager that clearly captures the most important info and that the client can easily understand and be comfortable with. It’s a calculated risk — with benefits. We want to write in a way that gives clients that lightbulb moment If a client doesn’t walk away with a greater understanding of their position than they had when they arrived, we haven’t done our job properly.
From Joel Cranshaw of Clearpoint, Australia
Yes! I say that for two reasons. Our retainer-based fee model means that we must work efficiently — so we must be clear, concise, and to the point. And what we believe in, our philosophical approach to compassionately meeting clients’ needs, also means that we must communicate in ways they can readily understand.
From Sophie Tremblay of Novalex, Canada:
Absolutely! We know that even the smartest people aren’t necessarily familiar with legal terms and concepts. So a huge part of what we do is to make the law understandable. We use concrete examples and remove the abstract, along with many other techniques such as metaphor (it’s like), and ‘this means’… We remove jargon and make important concepts stand out. We do what we need to do to be understood.
Hearing Sophie’s list of useful plain language techniques, I asked if she had ever had any formal plain language training. She hadn’t. Nor had Alexandra, or Joel. Yet instinctively, motivated by strong human values and a sense of care, all three ticked so many plain language boxes.
Here’s what a sense of care, and a desire to connect and be helpful, prompted these firms to do:
|Keep the content as concise and relevant as can be — thinking very carefully about what the client needs and sticking to that, avoiding cognitive overload
|Use a layout that is carefully organised and makes important points stand out
|Make it personal, putting yourself in your reader’s shoes, being ‘compassionately reader-centred
|Focus on clarity, explaining concepts in a way non-lawyers could understand
|Use metaphor or simile (it’s like) and reader-friendly interpretations (this means)
Without knowing it, they applied these key principles of plain language:
And while achieving the above, they naturally applied more detailed concepts of plain language, such as writing in the active voice, favouring verbs instead of nouns, writing strong informative headings, and so on.
Since doing those interviews, I have informally looked at the websites of many other B Corps. My sense has been that a good number show a higher standard of clarity and connection than their non-B Corp competitors. And some are outstandingly clear and inviting.
First it means that your B Corp values are most likely influencing you to write with more care. That’s great! But rather than assuming, why not test your writing against a recognised plain language standard? You can download the Write Plain Language Standard here for free and use it as you wish in your organisation. Quite apart from putting your writing to the test, using the Standard will help you label some of the good practices you may already have and teach you some you weren’t aware of.
For some, perhaps those creating and retailing products, the focus on plain language may be easier.
But for others, working in industries known for complex concepts and language, it will be a bigger challenge. However, if lawyers can do it, you can too, right? (Shout out to Sharesies, the Cooperative Bank, Pathfinder, KiwiBank, and others who prove you can write warmly and clearly in the financial sector too!)
It’s probably pretty clear to you by now that striving to create clear, human-centred writing has many practical benefits.
When you focus on the purpose of an email, you’re more likely to get understanding and the action you’d hoped for. When you focus on what the user needs to know, and begin with action words in a set of instructions, your user is more likely to follow them. When you put just the right content in a report, and use informative headings, your reader is more likely to keep reading. When you write your terms and conditions with a reader-friendly tone, using everyday words and making key messages clear, people are more likely to feel positive about them.
And at the big-picture level, plain language is essential to a functioning democracy in which all people can access their rights and understand their obligations. Human-centred writing makes everything work better.
Actively applying the ethos and principles of plain language creates a beautiful congruence between your values and how you show up in the world. It’s about authenticity and speaking in a voice that truly reflects who you are. It’s really at the heart of being a B.
It’s no coincidence that the WriteMark logo is shaped like a heart. From a flicker of frustration in the late 90s to ‘the Oscars of plain language’ today, the notion of heart has pulsed through.
Heart in the sense of care and commitment to customers, and heart in the sense of backbone and determination.
In 1999, after almost 10 years helping people write better business documents, Write Limited’s Lynda Harris felt a growing discontent.
‘I felt that we weren’t yet making enough of a difference.’
With a few notable exceptions, we were still being asked to train groups of 12–14, rather than whole organisations. This meant that the effect of the training was often quickly undone by well-meaning managers. The pull of business-as-usual was strong.
‘A lot of our clients openly said they wrote in plain English, or had set that as an expectation, but in the thousands of business documents that passed through our hands each year, we saw very little in practice.’
It was crucial to get everyone to truly see what clear writing looked like, and to understand the profound effect it had on relationships and revenue.
Two things were needed: a clear standard of plain language and an easy way to show when something had met that standard.
In 2000, Write began working with the UK-based Plain English Campaign and its badge of clarity — the Crystal Mark. The Crystal Mark showcased organisations that really cared about communicating clearly and openly. And it introduced both a quality standard and a way of recognising you’d met it.
But the UK-priced Crystal Mark proved too expensive for New Zealand businesses and didn’t feel relevant for our market. After 2 years, Lynda knew she had to try again with something just right for New Zealand.
It took time, courage, and commitment, but by mid-2004 the idea for New Zealand’s homegrown WriteMark had started coming to life.
‘We were a small, highly skilled company, passionate and dedicated to spreading the plain language message. If we were going to launch our own mark, it had to work.
‘We held focus groups in the public and private sectors and did extensive research into international plain language organisations. We set and refined the elements that make up the WriteMark Standard, and set up a training and moderation process for assessors.
‘We based our fees as low as we could to encourage all New Zealand organisations to invest in plain English. We offered free WriteMark assessments to organisations that had already advertised a commitment to plain English. They could immediately see the benefits of a standard-based assessment.’
On 1 March 2005, the WriteMark launched, and it didn’t take long for businesses and government to take notice.
Over the years WriteMark’s assessors have checked hundreds of documents against 28 criteria, and helped writers make changes where their documents don’t measure up.
The WriteMark criteria reflect internationally recognised benchmarks for plain language and clear online communication. They include plain language, usability, suitability for the target audience, and design.
Although grown in New Zealand, the WriteMark also distinguishes quality documents and websites overseas.
Recent recipients of the WriteMark say the quality mark is the ultimate achievement for advocates of plain language. It reassures readers that something is clear, expert, and has reliable information that people can follow.
Achieving the WriteMark shows your genuine care and consideration for customers, with a side effect of saving time and building trust.
Today, holders of the WriteMark can go even further to show they’re committed to excellent communication with customers. WriteMark Plus combines an expert assessor view with insights from the people who matter.
A WriteMark Plus quality mark shows that you’ve also rigorously tested your content on real people in your target audience
For Lynda, it has always been about real people and using the power of words for good.
‘People can communicate their ideas and get the information they need. And ultimately it leads to a fairer, more respectful society.’
A society with heart.