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
So, believing what you do about the power of plain language, my question to you as both writer and consumer is, ‘What action can you take that is bigger and bolder than before?’ How can you make your sense of care count?
Lynda Harris, Chief Executive of Write and WriteMark, talked about care as a catalyst for change in her speech at the Plain English Awards ceremony in November 2018. She went on to say:
Make your effort meaningful! What significant project needs your support and insights? Which of your reader groups are most in need? Who must you persuade? Where can you make a difference?
One way to make a bold and meaningful difference is to earn the WriteMark Plain Language Standard on your document or website. This mark of ‘care in action’ isn’t necessarily easy to achieve, but the payoff is powerful. To meet the Standard, you’ll need to be committed to the process — and persistent.
The rigorous WriteMark process sets up a partnership of care where document creators commit to plain language for their readers. Documents that reach the Standard have been checked against 28 elements covering purpose, structure, content, language, presentation, and accuracy. WriteMark Plus adds user-testing with readers to the mix as well.
The writers, editors, designers, legal teams, and others who create WriteMark-ready documents often work together for a long time. The WriteMark review recognises the work everyone has put in so far and checks for any final changes needed to achieve the Standard.
If you start on the WriteMark journey, you’ll need to consider feedback from your WriteMark assessor. The document will probably change as your team considers the feedback and decides how to implement it. If you aim for WriteMark Plus, you’ll also get feedback from real readers who reflect the characteristics of your intended audience.
Whatever the source of the feedback, you’ll know that it’s intended to help shape your document into one that exemplifies the best of plain language for the benefit of all readers. A document that reflects the care of all the professionals who have crafted it — and care for the readers who will ultimately read, understand, and act on it.
Once you’re on the way to achieving the Standard, you’ll sign an agreement called the WriteMark Deed. The Deed sets out our WriteMark relationship and explains how it works now, and for the future.
We’ll both celebrate and spread the news, hoping to inspire others to aim high for clarity and care for their readers.
When something catastrophic happens at home, you need to act fast. Can you imagine trying to get help like this?
“I need to undertake a disclosure with you. I’ll give you the full particulars. A bodily injury has occurred directly or indirectly. And I’m worried about the remediation. Can I priority request you and your apparatus be utilised to assist with the contamination damage?”
These convoluted phrases pepper real insurance documents. But when people need to understand what’s covered and how to make a claim, they need clear, accurate information that’s easy to navigate.
We’re thrilled that more insurance companies are taking this seriously.
Some companies are working hard on their legalese, rewriting dense, internally focused policies, forms, and letters so they are easy to read, easy to understand, and written for the reader rather than the writer.
And each year a few more make the WriteMark grade.
Tower Insurance is one of the latest. Tower’s recent commercials proudly proclaim that they now have the WriteMark on 14 home, contents, and vehicle policies. Their campaign dismantles difficult words and shows the difference straightforward language can make.
Tower’s image of the word ‘appurtenance’ exploding symbolises their mission to simplify insurance.
And it had us scratching our heads.
Because, even though our WriteMark assessors include authors, linguists, editors, teachers, and all-round word nerds, many of us didn’t know what ‘appurtenance’ meant.
These are people who send emails headed ‘Noun string of the day’, and can spend half an hour discussing the subtle difference between ‘moved home recently’ or ‘recently moved home’. They savour the richness, elegance, and (let’s be honest) perverseness of the English language.
We can all appreciate that ‘appurtenance’ is a lovely-sounding word with a fascinating etymology.
Middle English apertenant, from Anglo-French appurtenant, present participle of apurtenir to belong — more at ‘appertain’
Middle English apperteinen, from Anglo-French apurtenir, from Late Latin appertinēre, from Latin ad- + pertinēre to belong — more at ‘pertain’
But we’re also citizens and policy holders, who need to find our way through important information, often under stress. In times like these we want clarity, not a linguistic lift. We want information where writers have put the effort in to help us make decisions and take action.
We know it’s not straightforward, and companies that have reached the WriteMark Standard for some documents deserve recognition for their courage and commitment. And once one or two documents have met the Standard, it’s very easy to spot those that still need work.
Congratulations to Tower!
In home insurance, an appurtenance is a piece of property associated with the main dwelling. For example, it includes the garden and trees, and other structures on the property such as garages, decks, and swimming pools. It also includes items that are in some way part of the house, such as air-conditioning units, furnaces, and septic systems.
— many of which could catch on fire!
You’ve got sparkling content, you want to show customers that you care about their needs, and you’re ready to wear your heart on your sleeve (or the WriteMark logo on your document).
What do you do?
We’ve made the process for getting the WriteMark straightforward and transparent — as easy as 1-2-3.
Get in touch and let us know what sort of content you’d like us to assess, and whether it’s one document or webpage, or part of something bigger. We’ll give you a price and a timeframe.
Once we have your document, our assessors get to work holding it up against the 28 elements of the WriteMark Standard. These elements fall into 5 categories.
If you’re applying for the WriteMark Plus, we’ll also look at how you tested your content with readers and any changes you made based on their feedback.
We’ll give you a written assessment. You’ll easily see where your document or digital content has met an element of the WriteMark Standard, and where it might need more work.
If something doesn’t meet the Standard straight away, we’ll explain why and suggest how to fix it. We’ll also give you an idea of the scale of the problem, and explain why it matters.
You can then make the changes, or ask us to.
Here’s an example of what we might suggest to help you improve your sentences to meet the Standard:
We suggest you rewrite some long sentences to make them shorter, clearer, and easier for readers to scan. For example:
If any claim under this or any other policy with us is supported by any incorrect, incomplete, or fraudulent information or statement, then your claim is not payable and this policy will be automatically terminated from the date that the information or statement was supplied to us, or the statement or fraudulent claim was made to us. We may also terminate any other policy you have with us at the same time.
(Two sentences: 57 + 15 words)
You could write
If you claim under this policy and give us any incorrect, incomplete, or fraudulent information or statements, we may:
- refuse your claim
- end your policy from the date you supplied misleading information or statements
- end any other policy you have with us.
(One sentence broken into bullet points: 41 words)
We’ll look at your document again, and either award it the WriteMark or let you know where you still need to make changes.
You can ask us questions at any stage. Our team of assessors is here to help — we understand that it’s not always straightforward getting agreement from everyone involved in bringing a piece of writing to life. We’ve learned successful ways to communicate complex terms that at first seem intractable.
Our assessment criteria are based on reader testing, cognitive fluency research, national and international standards, and many years of experience. We work on behalf of readers and in partnership with you.
After Step 3, you’re ready to tell the world that your document meets the highest standard of clarity and customer care.
Achieving and displaying the WriteMark:
If you make changes to your content after receiving the WriteMark, you’ll need to check back with us to make sure it still meets the WriteMark Standard. Once you’re in the swing of hitting the clarity standard every time, we can show you even more ways to polish your content to perfection.
Australia’s Budget Direct Insurance is always looking for ways to set itself apart from the competition. In 2017 the company identified the opportunity to improve the overall customer experience, by creating the easiest-to-understand Home and Contents Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) in the marketplace.
After a highly worthwhile journey — that took a little longer than expected — the new PDS was published this week. And it became the world’s first document carrying the heart with a tick — not just the prestigious WriteMark, but the ultimate WriteMark Plus.
When a document or website holds the WriteMark, customers know that the writing meets a very high standard of clarity. Experts have evaluated the writing against rigorous criteria, emphasising the needs of the audience. The WriteMark Plus includes testing the document with the intended audience.
By mid-2018, Budget Direct had spent 12 months gathering information about the challenge ahead:
Struggling to find good examples to follow, they extended their search. They saw that Tower in New Zealand had won an award in the Plain Language Awards. They phoned us to ask who did our type of work in Australia. ‘We do,’ we told them. Two of our consultants travelled to Brisbane to talk about Budget Direct’s vision for the document and how we could help.
The project involved a lot more than a simple rewrite. For the change to be permanent, Write and the project team at Budget Direct needed to bring the rest of the organisation along with them.
Legal and compliance teams had to be satisfied that the changes reduced risk rather than introducing it. Systems and processes had to change with the new content. Every piece of content needed to be tracked through each stage of writing, review, editing, and testing.
Fortunately, Budget Direct took the time they needed to deliver the best result.
After lots of hard work, the Budget Direct PDS for the Home and Contents Policy is at last ready to take its place in the market. It’s now easy to read, understand, and act on. Insurance customers have endorsed the change. And the policy carries the WriteMark Plus to confirm all that care has paid off.
Budget Direct told us at the start of the project that success is when customers say, ‘Wow! I didn’t know insurance could be this easy.’
‘Write made it easy. Customers now have a quality PDS that’s easy to read and understand. Our consultants love it because they can now have more informative conversations and deliver greater value to our customers.’
That was Write’s goal. That’s why we’re proud to have given Budget Direct a document with heart.
Check out Gusto, the wonderful designers who worked on the document.
Explore the design in Gusto’s portfolio of recent work
And you can view the whole document at the WriteMark holders page.
What’s better than a ‘force for good’ advancing the quality of communication for everyday New Zealanders?
Two forces for good.
WriteMark is the founding sponsor of New Zealand’s Plain English Awards — a celebration of clear communication and a public pat on the back for plain English champions.
For 14 years WriteMark has backed the Plain English Awards Trust to fund, organise, promote, host, and celebrate the annual Awards. The Awards recognise commitment to clear language on all scales — whether it’s across an organisation as a whole or down to a sentence that shines.
But it’s not just about wiping out the waffle. It’s about everyone’s right to take part in society. Information needs to be easy to read, understand, and act on — for all of us.
The effect of WriteMark joining forces with the Plain English Awards has been profound. Feedback has shown that the Awards:
A piece of communication displaying the WriteMark, or that has won a Plain English Award, shows the world that writers have thought carefully about their readers. And it shows readers that they can expect to easily understand and act on the information in front of them.
Now that’s a winning combination.
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.