WriteMark

Plain Language Standard

Three reasons to get the WriteMark on shorter documents

Wide shot of a multi-level library with white staircases and bookshelves.

We’d love to help you achieve the WriteMark on the whole library of documents you use to communicate with customers | Photo by Niklas Ohlrogge on Unsplash.

Most documents that hold the WriteMark are on the longer side. Achieving the Standard takes time and effort. That time and effort feels better spent when — at the end of it all — you can proudly display the WriteMark logo on an important 100-page document, rather than an everyday 1-pager, right?

But which of your public-facing documents do people look at most often? Which do you think your customers are more likely to read from start to finish?

You’ll get the best value out of the WriteMark by achieving the Standard and displaying the logo on the documents that are most important to your readers. We’re willing to bet they’re not always your longest.

Here are three reasons why the WriteMark is right for shorter documents.

1. Short documents often leave a bigger impression on your readers

Consider which of your public-facing documents are the most important to you, and which are the most important to your readers. Are they the same documents? Or are you overlooking other documents that have more impact on your customers’ experience?

Three reasons to get the WriteMark on shorter documents WriteMark

Your longest documents might seem the most important, but readers often spend more time and engage more deeply with short, everyday documents |Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash.

For example, lots of insurance product disclosure statements in New Zealand hold the WriteMark. A product disclosure statement (PDS) is the main policy document that sets out all the benefits, exclusions, terms, and conditions of cover. It’s an important document for both insurers and their customers.

But many customers will never read their PDS cover to cover. They’ll dip into a few sections as and when they need them. Making the PDS as clear as possible is still vital, but it’s unlikely to be the document that insured customers spend the most time with.

Instead, those customers spend more time on shorter documents: things like policy schedules, application forms, renewal letters, claims processes, websites, and correspondence. These ‘satellite’ documents may seem less important, but they’re the ones customers are actually reading. As a result, they play an outsized part in building confidence and trust.

That’s why getting short documents right can make a big difference, and leave a bigger impression.

2. WriteMark requirements make short documents focused and functional

The WriteMark Standard has 25 requirements, ranging from the ‘big picture’ (things like smart structure and clear purpose) to the minute details of language and presentation. Some of these 25 requirements won’t apply to short documents — this makes them easy to meet!

But for many short documents, the WriteMark requirements can help you consider improvements you might otherwise overlook.

For example, you might think:

  • structure is less important when all your information fits on one page
  • headings aren’t needed for a document of only a few paragraphs
  • a bullet list is unnecessary when you’re only asking a reader to fill out a form.

But following the WriteMark requirements for structure, headings, and bullet lists — among other things — hones short documents to make them their best, punchiest, most practical versions:

  • A smart structure ensures you deliver information in a logical order, so readers build their understanding and know what to do.
  • Headings summarise key messages, clarifying purpose and supporting navigation.
  • Bullet lists enable readers to scan information easily and create extra white space.

All these elements make long documents simpler and more functional, but here’s the secret: they work for short documents too!

3. Customers expect consistent quality across the documents they read

Displaying the WriteMark on your biggest documents is a visible commitment to caring about your customers. Adding it to the surrounding constellation of shorter documents creates consistency in your brand values across all your communications.

Customers expect consistency from the businesses and organisations they deal with — even subconsciously. A poorly written webpage or letter template will stand out like a sore thumb. One complex and ambiguous communication can undermine the caring and conscientious brand value reflected in the WriteMark.

If you can make something as complex as an insurance PDS clear, why leave a claims form or FAQs page in the dense and ambiguous Dark Ages? Achieving the WriteMark on shorter documents signals a consistent, clear tone across the whole array of interactions you have with your customers.

We can assess short documents in batches, so the WriteMark is more cost-effective

If you’re concerned about the cost, we can work out a deal. Because it doesn’t take as long to assess short documents, we’re often happy to do them in batches.

This makes it even more cost-effective to achieve the WriteMark for your ‘daily drivers’ — those short, significant documents that your readers encounter every day.

We’d love to help you get the WriteMark on your library of short documents. Contact us today to discuss your documents, your readers, and to get a quote.

Send us some information about your short documents and we’ll be in touch

 

Why the WriteMark matters more than ever in the age of AI writing

A woman in a tank top using a VR headset.

Photo by cottonbro studio / Pexels licence

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.

People-centric writing stands out in an AI-generated torrent

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’

Read about the ouroboros on Medium’s website

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.

Our human assessors give human insights

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.

Big-picture elements require critical thought

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:

  • a clear purpose
  • an overall structure that helps readers to understand it
  • answers to all the questions a reader is likely to ask.

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.

AI can be a cultural liability

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.

The WriteMark Plus gives unrivalled insight into how readers experience a document

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:

  • whether a certain word choice or section is confusing
  • whether a document’s structure matches readers’ expectations
  • whether a document is accessible to readers of all abilities
  • whether a document is practical to use in the real world.

AI is clever, and convincing. But there’s simply no substitute for testing a document with its target audience.

AI can be a powerful plain language tool — learn how to use it safely

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

Read our blog post about how to get the most from AI

How does the WriteMark compare to a new international standard?

Multiethnic businesswomen checking information in documents

We’ve mapped out how the WriteMark sits next to the new ISO Standard. We wanted to be sure our mark of plain language quality aligns with international best practice. And we wanted to understand where and why the two standards differ | Photo by Alexander Suhorucov on www.pexels.com

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.

Read our blog about the ISO Standard over on the Write website

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.

Comparing the WriteMark to the ISO Standard

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.

  • Guideline 5.2.4(a) in the ISO Standard says to ‘Use a new heading when introducing a new topic’.
  • To achieve the WriteMark, a document must have ‘useful, informative headings to guide the reader’.

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:

  • placing the most important information first
  • separating supplementary information
  • presenting instructions in chronological order
  • and several more specific guidelines.

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 emphasises a different purpose

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:

Comparing the ISO Standard to the Plain Language Act and Write Plain Language Standard

The ISO Standard brings elements together under an umbrella of ‘cohesive’ writing

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.

Does a WriteMark document meet the ISO Standard?

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:

  • purposeful and reader-focused to ensure information is relevant
  • organised and structured to make information easy to find
  • welcoming and clearly written to make information easy to understand
  • practical and concise to make information easy to use.

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.

Updating the WriteMark to keep pace with international best practice

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:

  • who you’re writing for
  • your readers’ context when encountering your document
  • what you and your readers hope to achieve with this document.

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.


More resources

Download Write’s Plain Language Standard for free

Learn about the WriteMark criteria and assessors

Buy a copy of the ISO Plain Language Standard


 

Clearly, it’s still Summer

Image, road driving through hills

Summer KiwiSaver helps you on your financial literacy journey. Image by John Dame / Unsplash licence

Forsyth Barr continues its plain language journey with the latest update to the product disclosure statement for Summer KiwiSaver. For the sixth year in a row, Summer KiwiSaver has kept its WriteMark status by continuing to commit to clear communication.

The WriteMark Plain Language Standard shows readers that a document is easy to read and act on.

Trish Oakley, Head of Summer, explains why they’ve consistently sought the WriteMark as a hallmark of clarity for their document.

‘We want to show our commitment to plain language so that our investors can easily understand KiwiSaver, and make well-informed decisions about their investments.’

Financial documents change, but they needn’t lose clarity

When a document changes, it needs a quick check-up to make sure it still reaches the high standard demanded by the WriteMark. This time around, the updates were needed to reflect changes to legislation, tax wording, and processes.

‘Summer’s product disclosure statement is a living document’, says Trish, ‘and as it changes, we’ll continue to seek the WriteMark tick. That way, we’re supporting our investors in their financial literacy — helping them to understand the language of money.’

Clarity inspires trust

Here at WriteMark we commend providers like Forsyth Barr.

Write and WriteMark CE Lynda Harris says,

‘Information about investment affects decisions that have a far-reaching impact. Forsyth Barr has committed to clarity in a field that is known for its complexity. Their members can be confident that Forsyth Barr really does ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to putting customers’ needs first.’

Read Summer’s product disclosure statement
Read our earlier story about Summer KiwiSaver
Read Summer’s article about their commitment to clarity on their website
Find out more about getting a WriteMark assessment