GS: The major challenge in public service writing is to be authoritative on their subject matter but at the same time convey that information to the larger public in plain English. What are your thoughts?
CS: Public service writing is certainly a tough art. Public servants examine and advise on inherently complex issues. They’ve got no time to turn around complex documents. They’re writing for very diverse audiences, from ministers to someone who speaks English as a second language.
The challenge here is to express complexity in a language that is clear, simple and as accessible as possible. We’re not talking about dumbing down ideas. Rather, respecting ideas and the audience by using a language that fits the purpose.
George Orwell’s first pragmatic rule for professional writers is to never use a metaphor, simile or any other figure of speech that you regularly see in print.
GS: When you were analysing these documents which exact documents were you looking at?
CS: The Ethos CRS research project was to examine standard documents produced by 35 Commonwealth departments. We looked at standard annual reports, corporate strategies and plans, and, based on their availability on websites, reports that were inherent to the business of an agency.
Then we essentially ran 3 metrics over it. Partnering with the language analysis platform Visible Thread, we measured the documents for sentence length, active and passive voice and grade level using the Flesch-Kincaid score. These were tangible metrics used to measure the readability of the documents.
GS: What is, in this context, active and passive voice, and why is it important?
CS: Active voice is the structure of grammar.
‘The minister launched the report’, ‘The government announced a solution’, and ‘The citizens marched on the streets’. These sentences give the idea that someone’s tangibly doing something.
Active voice generally is shorter. You use fewer words and it puts at the centre the entity that is doing something. This builds into the structure of the idea of accountability and transparency, which is what the government stands for.
GS: What were some examples of documents that were not so great and how did you arrive at the score?
CS: I won’t name and shame, rather accentuate the positives. The top group of documents were produced by the Australian Securities and Investments Commissions (ASIC). That really surprised us. Usually, the language of law and regulation is very complicated.
The final score was an amalgam of reading level, grade level, active and passive voice and sentence length. ASIC came in first place using these metrics.
GS: Coco Chanel once famously said something on the lines of “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one accessory off”. Shouldn’t writers also value plain writing over ornamentation?
CS: That’s so true! I was looking at a document yesterday and was peeved by the phrase, ‘a wide range of measures’. We haven’t introduced a wide range of measures anywhere, we’ve just introduced measures.
Ernest Hemingway had famously said he’s waging a war against adjectives and adverbs. So often they’re put in without careful thought. The usage of words have to make meanings more precise or accurate.
GS: But this principle doesn’t apply to speeches, isn’t it? It’s entirely different…
CS: Speech is the spoken word for which the words we use are different.
Underpinning the idea of rhetoric, speech is delivered to emotionally move the audience and demonstrate logic. Adjectives here add the emotional colour of movement, which is important to an audience.
In this study, we were looking at official reports, which are very different to speeches.
GS: Now what happens with all the results that you’ve gathered? What are you expecting?
CS: Well, I hope it creates interest for two major reasons.
First, as citizens, we have rights and responsibilities. If we’re being delivered government services, we have to understand our rights and our responsibilities. And we can’t do that if websites or documents are unclear. So that’s the first thing – the need to respect the citizens.
The second thing is clear writing is grounded on clear thinking. We can write like Ernst Hemmingway but if we don’t think clearly, it doesn’t matter how good a stylist we are, we won’t be able to get the information across. Clear writing and clear thinking together generate better decisions. And that’s really important for governments. We put together the information that good decision-makers need that enable them to make those good decisions based on evidence.
GS: That’s Chas Savage, CEO of Canberra based consultancy Ethos CRS speaking to us about their study on public service writing.