The reader rocks! Reading is voluntary

On 24 June 2021, an English-language linguist from the Translation Centre took part in the Joint Training Venture ‘Clear writing: write for your reader’. This was a pre-conference in a series of conferences that form part of the European Commission project ‘Clear writing for Europe 2021’.

This event put the focus on the reader. Three specialists from EU institutions and two from academia looked at reader-focused writing. Their common themes were clear wording, the structure and design of a text, and knowing your audience in order to target them.

The Centre’s speaker first introduced the topic of ‘Writing for translation’. She illustrated why clarity matters and every word counts. For non-native speakers who write in English, she recommended the use of editing to ensure that texts are clear and suitable for translation.

Her main advice for writers in general was to use:

  • simple sentences;
  • structuring information vertically (e.g. bullet points);
  • active verbs;
  • one term for one concept;
  • correct punctuation;
  • one idea per paragraph;
  • links, glossaries or other reference material; and
  • careful text formatting.

and to avoid:

  • culture-specific terms and metaphors;
  • jargon (unless in specialist texts);
  • unusual acronyms;
  • strings of nouns;
  • an ambiguous structure;
  • Latin; and
  • empty verbs and excess nouns.

You can find more information in her presentation and in the CdT booklet ‘Writing for translation’.

A translation quality manager from the European Commission then outlined the purpose of different text types (legal, administrative, press, etc.) in her presentation ‘Writing for a multicultural audience’. Unfortunately, little flexibility exists to change legal and formal texts that contain direct quotations or programme names and acronyms (which tend not to be translated but treated as trade marks).

The gap between EU political commitment and citizens can already be seen at the translation stage, where texts may cause problems due to inadequate drafting, mistakes or translators lacking specialist knowledge. Translation should therefore be borne in mind at the outset, and translators need a clear brief so they can produce clear translations for multilingual communication.

In her ‘Writing accessible content’ presentation, an ICT accessibility specialist from the European Parliament said that access to information was a fundamental human right and text design was vital.

Texts also contain images, links and multimedia content, and content editors have tools to improve the accessibility of a text, such as choosing high contrast for readability or using descriptive language to help visually impaired persons who rely on a voice reading tool. Other suggestions were to put meaningful texts in hyperlinks and alternative text in images.

The experts concluded that an institutional text does not belong to the author but to the institution, and that ISO standards for plain language and accessibility standards should be part of the workflow.

Two academics from the Simon Fraser University in Canada then analysed the writing process for meaningful user-centric documents. Their focus was on plain language for everyone, even experts.

They recommended that a text should start by stating its purpose succinctly, with further details left until the end.

The same amount of effort should be dedicated to revising a text as to crafting it in the first place. The text’s purpose, content and audience should be considered. Ideally, the audience would be analysed so the author can confidently write what the reader needs to know.

They also said that a general audience will comprise specific audiences (age groups, genders, educational levels, etc.) whose individual needs should each be addressed with empathy.

To sum up, a text with a clear message in standard English and a structure and layout that are easy on the eye will appeal to most people. This can even be tested e.g. with readability software or surveys. Furthermore, authors need to realise that reading is voluntary and assume that all texts are initially skim read only. If a reader does not find the relevant information, the author has not done their job.

More information about clear writing and plain language can be found in the European Commission guide ‘How to write clearly’ and in ‘Claire's clear writing tips.

‘Clear writing for Europe’ is taking place throughout 2021. There will be a larger conference on 13 and 14 October (where the Centre will also be represented) that aims to connect better with citizens through clear writing and signs, with a follow-up event on 9 November 2021.