Heading back from the biennial conference of the Plain Language Association International (which was absolutely fantastic, by the way), I found my thoughts coming back to one presentation more than any other: Neil James’s look ahead at what the next 5 years may hold for plain language.
James’s thesis is that a host of different “communication enhancement” disciplines will converge. His list includes plain language, information design, information architecture, usability, and technical communication. There are also adjacent fields with which there is significant overlap, such as low literacy communication, controlled language, editing services, human factors, and marketing.
The logical response to this convergence, says James, is for all of us within the core set of disciplines to form a single, organized, more professional field under the banner of a single, appropriate, effective name.
He’s right on every score.
A lot of people are confused by the different labels used by different practitioners, no one more than the practitioners themselves. That shouldn’t be surprising. Just within the one discipline of “plain language” there are many differences in how practitioners view the process, the focus, and the result — in some cases, even the basic purpose and philosophy.
The convergence only compounds this problem, because in addition to competing versions of the story within each discipline, we’ve now got competing disciplines. We can hardly expect our clients and employers to keep all this straight if we ourselves aren’t entirely clear on it.
Actively working on a process of uniting and defining these disciplines, rather than just letting it happen, greatly increases the chances that the resulting field will be coherent, cohesive, and professional. It won’t be easy to do. But it won’t be any more painful than what will happen if we just let things continue on their merry way. And we’ll have a lot more to show for it — if only the fact that a bunch of communications professionals can actually solve their own communications problems.
As for what to call this new field, James sees “clear communications” as the clear choice from among the terms that are currently in use. Again, I’d agree, if that’s the pool we’re limited to. But I think it’s worth looking for, maybe even coining, a new term.
That would give us the chance to find a name that suggests not just an absence of obstacles but an active attention to reader or user motivations. Most importantly, we might be able to find a name that suggests that what we do is, in many cases, a new and separate function — something akin to a curatorial function that involves coordinating all the applicable communications skills as well as the concerns of all stakeholders, internal and external.
I have no idea what that term would be. But we’ve got a few years to think about it.
Kudos to Cheryl Stephens, Kate Harrison Whiteside, and the rest of the Vancouver conference team. You guys did a great job! And you gave us all a lot to think about.