Let’s make it plain

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Me in the days when I had a ‘proper’ job as a journalist.

Back in the days when I had a proper job, I used to edit a staff magazine. I had to write articles, find pictures, and then design the whole lot using a desktop design package (Anyone remember good old ‘Aldus Pagemaker’?). I’d come from a local newspaper where, if you didn’t write in good, clear English, you’d be hauled before the news editor, told in no uncertain terms that you’d written a pile of poop, then get sent back to do it again.

So it was with this mindset that I entered the corporate world editing the internal magazine for a toilet paper manufacturer. As you can imagine, it was a whirl of never-ending glitz and glamour.

I never really struggled for content, as I had ‘newsgatherers’ based in all our locations scattered across the country, and they would send in articles and ideas for stories to be put into the magazine. The problem was, these people weren’t writers, but volunteered to do the news gathering on top of their own jobs. Although I was very grateful for them sending me content, unfortunately some of it was, well, how can I put it? Really, really boring. Oh, and very badly written too. You’d also get long, tedious articles about some new manufacturing process, or reams and reams of text about ‘company reorganisation’ written in a bizarre version of English that no-one who actually spoke English would ever understand

I remember one occasion when I was fairly new into the job and had called a newsgatherer at one of our sites to discuss editing what she’d sent me. She was something in HR, and possessed no self-doubt about the importance of her own role in the organisation. The effrontery of a minion such as myself daring to suggest changing anything in her literary masterpiece was simply outrageous.

So she gave me a proper dressing down, and ordered me not to touch a single full stop in her copy.

It didn’t occur to her that I was a professionally-trained writer doing the job I was paid to do, which was to take copy sent to me and turn it into plain English. I would not have dreamt of trying to prevent her doing the job she was employed to do, nor tell her how to do it. But she clearly thought she could write better than a professional writer.

That’s the funny thing about being a writer. Because most of the population can use a pen or a computer keyboard, then we all have the potential to be writers. But being a good writer is like most jobs, in that the skill comes with training and experience. I mean, I play a fair bit of tennis, but I’d never tell Andy Murray how to hold his racquet.

Translating a piece of complicated company jargon into something comprehensible is a particular skill and should not be underestimated. In my Dad’s column from 20th October 1979, he applauds the pressure being put on officialdom to simplify jargon so that its meaning is understood by the people it is trying to inform.

It was the same year that Chrissie Maher, frustrated with the lack of progress in simplifying communication, founded the Plain English Campaign with a fantastic publicity stunt. She shredded hundreds of gibberish-laden Government documents in Parliament Square, Westminster. She was approached by a police officer who ordered her to move on, using the wording of the antiquated 1839 Metropolitan Police Act. Once he had finished his long, drawn-out piece of legalese, Chrissie translated it into Plain English, saying: “Does that gobbledygook mean we have to go?”

On the Plain English website you can find some wonderful examples of meaningless, empty phrases used by people who want us to think they know what they are talking about (you know who you are!).

Try changing this into Plain English; ‘We need a more blue-sky approach to balanced relative paradigm shifts.’

Or how about ‘It’s time to revamp and reboot our synchronised monitored matrix approaches.’

Possibly some of the most famous users of gibberish are our beloved football managers and pundits, and courtesy of the Plain English Campaign’s ‘football gobbledygook generator’, I wonder if you can make sense of this little nugget:

‘We were over-reliant on our custodian once again and we got between the lines well and it’s still potential ‘phoenix-from-the-flames’ stuff.’

Good luck with that!

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 18th October and the Gazette & Herald on 16th October 2019

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