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    Plain language vs. politeness: When writing what you mean can be considered rude

    I’m an advocate for plain language. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I love it. I love the simplicity and clarity of it. Why use 50 words to say something that could have been said in 10, right?

    Plain language is at the heart of everything I do as an editor. I take great satisfaction in helping my clients make their message clear, so they can connect with their readers and communicate their story to the world. I genuinely get excited when someone sends me a 5-page brochure and says ‘please cut this down to 2 pages’ (okay, call me weird, but it’s ‘my thing’, and everyone has their ‘thing’, right?).

    Call me weird, but this excites me!

    Part of my role as an editor is not only to make my clients’ messages clear, but also to assist them in making changes to their writing. I often do this by marking up their document with little comment bubbles, saying things like ‘Maybe you could consider shortening this into two sentences, because it’s a bit lengthy’ and ‘I like where you’re going with this, and I see that it’s a crucial part of the argument, but please consider changing it into a series of dot points for clarity and to reduce the word count?’.

    So, as I was making such comment balloons on a 60 000-word report today, it hit me: why aren’t I using plain language in my editorial comments? I am constantly encouraging my clients to use plain language, so surely I should be doing the same thing. Well, I tried it.

    Here’s what happened:

    This: ‘Maybe you could consider shortening this into two sentences, because it’s a bit lengthy.’

    Turned into: ‘This sentence is too long. You need to shorten it’.

    And this: ‘I like where you’re going with this, and I see that it’s a crucial part of the argument, but please consider changing it into a series of dot points for clarity and to reduce the word count?’

    Turned into: ‘There are too many words here. Put this into bullet points instead’.

    Wow! Rude much? Exactly what I thought, too! I wonder how my poor client would feel after reading a barrage of such comments scattered throughout their blood-sweat-and-tears-soaked document? Probably quite depressed, and probably thinking that they would never want to hire me again!

    On the other hand, plain language is super important when you’re trying to, for example, explain a complex subject to someone who doesn’t have three degrees and twenty years of experience. Which would you prefer to read (I’m assuming you don’t have three degrees in marine hydrogeology, here):

    ‘The factors influencing longshore drift in the submarine shallow waters of a sheltered embayment’

    Or

    ‘What affects the movement of sand along bay beaches?’

    (Pick the second one, please pick the second one!)

    So, I still think that plain language is the best thing since sliced bread. I will continue to encourage my clients to adopt the plain language principles in their work. However, I believe it has its place, and an editorial comment is NOT one of them. And neither is that text message you are trying to write to your partner about leaving their socks on the floor/not putting the milk away/forgetting to pay the phone bill AGAIN.

    At the end of the day, I think the most important thing in writing and editing is to consider your reader. Put yourself in his/her shoes.

    Need help making your message clear? Or just making sure you don’t sound rude? Contact me now to see how editing and proofreading can make a real difference to your communications.

    Kathryn Buehrig, of KB Editing, is an accredited editor, working for state government as a scientist and also providing freelance editing and proofreading.


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    Plain language

    Plain language simply means writing in a way that is easy to understand. Not many readers have the time to decipher wordy paragraphs, acronyms and bureaucratic speak, so why write that way?

    Which would you rather read:

    Before: You can obtain more information about the way in which the Department of Organisational Services and Community Development will manage your personal information, including the Department’s updated privacy policy by going directly to our website or requesting a copy from the department.

    After: If you want to learn more about how we use your personal information, read our privacy policy or contact us.

    They both mean the same thing, but the second example is going to immediately connect with readers and get them to take the call to action.

    The principles of plain language are:

    • Consider your reader
    • Know your message
    • Organise your information
    • Write effectively
    • Present clearly

    I can help you achieve the plain language principles in your writing.

    See my rates or contact me for a quote.

    Read some more before and after plain language treatment examples.

    Kathryn Buehrig, of KB Editing, is an accredited editor, working for state government as a scientist and also providing freelance editing and proofreading.


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    What is an accredited editor?

    Accredited editors need to pass an exam to prove their competence.

    When you hire an accredited editor, you can rest assured you’re getting the real deal. Accredited editors need at least three years’ full-time experience and have sat and passed an exam with a minimum score of 80 per cent.

    The exam, held by the Institute of Professional Editors, is three hours’ long and covers grammar, spelling, copyediting and industry standards and practices.

    Accredited editors need to renew their accreditation every five years by submitting proof of their continued working experience and professional development.

    I am proud to be one of only 364 accredited editors in Australia. I achieved accreditation in 2016, proving my competence against the Australian standards for editing practice.

    Kathryn Buehrig, of KB Editing, is an accredited editor, working for state government as a scientist and also providing freelance editing and proofreading.

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    How I became an editor

    I loved school. I was one of those kids that always had words like ‘studious’ and ‘conscientious’ written on my report cards. My mum tells me I could recognise and appropriately use 40 different words within weeks of starting school. However, I was also a perfectionist, sometimes to the point of obsession. I would throw tantrums because my latest artwork ‘JUST WASN’T RIGHT MUUUUMMM!’.

    I was always a perfectionist!

    In high school I became really interested in the natural sciences. On a family trip to Monkey Mia when I was about 14, I met the resident environmental scientist and thought he had the most awesome job in the entire world. From then on, that’s what I wanted to be.

    Reliving my childhood at Monkey Mia, feeding a dolphin with my daughter in 2018. –

    I completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Management in 1999, followed by an environmental traineeship with Greencorps. After continuing to sell shoes for a living (I have attended to enough smelly feet to last me a lifetime) I finally landed my first proper job as a scientist in October 2000. I’m very pleased to report that I’ve never had to go back to selling shoes. Don’t get me wrong, I love wearing shoes, I just don’t like selling them.

    Since 2000 I’ve worked in various roles for the government, managing our precious water resources. I have done a lot (and I mean A LOT) of writing over that time. My colleagues continually came to me to tidy up their reports, proofread their letters and help them delicately word controversial documents. In about 2008, I started editing in-house. This inspired me to complete a certificate in professional editing and proofreading.

    An editor’s typical ‘tools of the trade’.

    During my last stint of parental leave (my second baby girl is 7 years old already – *sob*), I started thinking that I could be really great at this editing thing and why not make a business out of it. So, I made the plunge into freelance editing and proofreading in 2012.

    In that first year, I built my experience and client base gradually while managing my part-time day job with the government and full-time mum job. I joined the Institute of Professional Editors, created a website and business cards and landed myself on a government agency’s panel of freelance editors. Not a bad effort considering the sleepless nights, nappy changes and endless loads of washing associated with raising small children.

    My in-house editing work began expanding as colleagues learned of my skills, and over the past few years I have broadened my freelance client base to include corporate and government clients, businesses, students and jobseekers.

    In 2016 I felt ready to prove my competence against the Australian standards for editing practice and sat the editors’ accreditation exam. I studied and planned extremely well, so I went into the exam feeling confident, but I had to wait months for the result.

    I studied and planned extremely well, so I went into the exam feeling confident.

    I felt a mixture of elation and relief when I received the news that I’d passed. I then felt a sense of pride when I discovered that only 40 out of 85 candidates passed that year. I’m very proud to say that I’m an accredited editor, and I even get to write ‘AE’ after my name – how cool is that!

    When reflecting on my education and career, I now realise that I have had, since a very young age, an incredibly keen eye for detail. This, and the freedom to determine my own working hours, is what has attracted me to the editing profession.

    An earlier version of this story was published in the Society of Editors June 2012 edition of Bookworm.

    Kathryn Buehrig, of KB Editing, is an accredited editor, working for state government as a scientist and also providing freelance editing and proofreading.