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
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.
Could the Kimble Center for Legal Drafting’s Power of Attorney for healthcare win any more accolades? Turns out the answer is a definite ‘yes’.
The ClearMark Awards judged the healthcare form worthy of the award for best legal document. The ClearMarks are organised by the US Center for Plain Language and recognise the best plain language communications created by organisations in North America. The Center’s Barbra Kingsley and Alex Miranda announced the 2021 winners as part of the Access for All virtual conference in May.
The judges said about the power of attorney that:
[it] is a wonderful example of making legal text accessible.
And they went on to say:
The writers conducted several different kinds of user testing, including with health professionals and typical lay users. They also benefited from input from the Center’s international board members and PL (plain language) experts in New Zealand. The effort shines through. It’s an exemplary piece, worthy of being winner in its category.
The Kimble Center for Legal Drafting paves the way for innovative, accessible legal documents. This article on the Center’s website describes its origins and goals.
People can use the Power of Attorney document to set up a person they trust to make decisions about their healthcare if they’re not able to. The Power of Attorney is easy to understand and fill out — and it’s free to use for US citizens.
More than 1000 people have used the form since it was published.
We’re head-over-heels for plain language, and we’re always excited when we find others who share our passion. Take Southern Cross Travel Insurance (SCTI): we’ve just awarded the WriteMark to their new domestic travel policy.
SCTI decided the time was right to offer an insurance policy that would help New Zealanders feel safe and secure when travelling around New Zealand. The WriteMark shows that SCTI is dedicated to bringing their customers a policy that’s clear and easy to understand.
Nick Bassett, Acting Head of Sales, Product and Marketing, says they wrote the policy with their customers in mind:
We’re committed to providing our customers with excellent service, and knowing what they’re covered for when they buy their policy is incredibly important. The WriteMark stamp is an endorsement of transparency and integrity, which is why we’re so pleased to have launched our first policy document in plain language, and to have achieved this recognition.
To celebrate, we’ve created a video that showcases everything there is to love about an insurance policy with the WriteMark.
Insurance should give us peace of mind because we know we have support in times of stress and uncertainty. A policy written with everyday words, short sentences, and useful headings locks in that peace of mind, because you know exactly what you’re covered for.
By writing your insurance policy in plain language, you’re showing that you care about your customers and can think from their perspective. Your transparency will help build their trust.
Want to start your own plain language love story? Ask yourself what your reader needs from you, and make sure you deliver it in a way that’s easy to understand.
Insurance cover is complicated, and your readers will thank you for finding a way to lead them through it, without all the jargon. You’ll find lots of helpful tips in our easy-to-use checklist — the Write Plain Language Standard.
Download Write’s free Plain Language Standard
Take our Plain Language Foundations online course
Read our recent blog post on how plain language can help institutions win back trust
Find out more about getting a WriteMark assessment
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.