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.