Keeping things plain keeps things 'just'


I read an interesting article recently by Canada-based editor and scholar, Iva Cheung[1]. She wrote about the benefits of writing in plain language from a social justice perspective.

For those who haven't heard of the term plain language, it means writing and presenting information in ways that make it easy for people to understand.

Cheung says people prefer things written in plain language because they're easier to read. Why does this matter?

Well, reading requires working memory—our mind's ability to hold onto information in the present while we process it. The trouble is our working memory can only handle so much information at any one time—three to five chunks at best. Force someone to read too many fancy words and too many long sentences and their working memory can soon reach its limit. This can cause their reading and learning to slow to a crawl.

What does any of this have to do with social justice? Cheung argues that not everyone in society can read and understand things quickly and easily, and it has nothing to do with whether they’re smart or not. She is speaking here about those people treated harshly by society based on their race, gender, income, health, etc. Worried about just making it through the day, their minds (working memories) have less room for reading and taking in new information.

Cheung sees this problem as being part of a never-ending cycle. Living as outcasts, people become overly stressed coping with daily life, which taxes their working memory. This makes it harder for them to perform tasks like reading, which they then lose interest in. By reading less, they limit their learning, leaving them further behind the rest of society.

From this viewpoint, it's easy to see how writing in plain language so that everyone has access to information they can easily understand and make use of, could well be a social justice matter.

If I've struck a chord with you on this, you might want to learn more about how you or your organisation could benefit from using plain language—the subject of my next post.



[1]Cheung, I. W. (2017). Plain language to minimize cognitive load: A social justice perspective. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication,60(4), 448-457. doi:10.1109/TPC.2017.2759639