We commonly think of editors as the word nerds who “correct the commas and stuff”. Plain English editors are certainly fit for that task, but their real value goes well beyond the words.
A plain English edit starts by analysing the audience for your document and evaluating how well the draft will deliver its intended outcomes.
Government reports often have a diverse readership, ranging from subject matter experts and stakeholder organisations to time-poor executives and the media. Yet they are mostly written for the more technical readers at the expense of the decision makers. “Too often government reports are organised by the research process.”
A plain English editor can help you map your readers and select the right strategies to balance their needs. If you already have a draft, your editor will assess it against research-based standards. High-volume documents, such as forms or websites, may need more extensive evaluation through surveys, focus groups or usability testing.
Invariably, the first suggestion a plain English editor will then make involves the document structure. Too often government reports are organised by the research process: setting out the issues, discussing methods and findings, and only then drawing some conclusions. Recommendations come right at the end, like Hercule Poirot revealing the murderer on the last page of an Agatha Christie novel.
This kind of structure is certainly logical, but it buries the most important analysis and forces your readers to sift the key points from the narrative. Research shows people prefer a telescoping structure, which starts with the important information before moving into the detail. This helps busy readers absorb key points while preserving the technical detail for those who want it.
A substantive plain English editor will re-sequence your text so each group of readers can readily find and understand what they need. The content itself doesn’t change; it’s just re-packed more strategically. This reduces a great deal of repetition and significantly increases reader satisfaction. Yet many agencies are not even aware that plain English should include structural editing, let alone realise the benefits it will bring.
Another new element in plain English practice is document design. Where editors were once more confined to placing text into tables or adding bulleted lists, they now work more comprehensively on typography, page layout and information graphics.
Technology has brought about this change and greatly extended the scope of the work that editors offer. Not long ago, when a report was prepared for publication, it would be typed as a text file for a graphic designer to lay out, add images and manage the printing and production. Word processing and design software is now more advanced and more accessible, and this has gradually merged what used to be separate roles.
As a result, many plain English editors now offer document design along with their structural review. They can even do this in Word, so you will know what your final document looks like much earlier in the process.
With structure and design in place, only then will a plain English editor start on the sentences. Be aware that their text editing will be far more interventionist than a traditional copy edit. When you ask them to “plain English” the text, be prepared for it to change.
A principle of book editing is to “respect the author’s voice” because most books are written by a professional, attributed author. In the public sector, a plain English editor works with an institutional author. Our maxim is to “respect the author’s content; enhance the author’s voice”.
This does not mean “dumbing down” or changing the meaning of your words. It means adjusting elements such as sentence length, word choice, passive voice and redundancy to improve the tone, readability, clarity and efficiency of a document. This typically trims a text by between 15% to 30% without losing content.
The result is that more of your readers will read more of your report.
Copy editing and proofreading
Only when the substantive work is done will a plain English editor copy edit the text. This involves checking each sentence for meaning, but mostly bringing consistency in elements such as capitals, spelling and abbreviations, and in numbers, punctuation and referencing. A good copy editor has considerable knowledge about these elements, and they’ll work with your in-house style guide or develop a document-specific style sheet.
Once the text is complete and signed off, the editor may make a final pass to proofread. This should focus on the corrections made during copy editing, but it also provides the final quality control before pressing the print button.
So next time someone suggests bringing in an editor to “plain English” a document, first decide what level of intervention you need. Do you want a quick copy edit, a final proof, or something more substantive? Are you open to upgrading the structure and design along with the words? If so, a good plain English editor will deliver significant value.
The good news is that today’s editor offers a much wider range of services than when we were just the copy editing “word nerds”. Some will specialise in parts of the editing spectrum, but others provide a one-stop editing shop. We can also help you scope your editing project to maximise value and meet your timeframe and budget.
There has never been such an exciting time to “plain English” that report.