The crystal ball: ‘clear language’ may unite plain language, editing, usability, information design professions

My belated post #1 from the Plain Language Conference

Neil James – Australia

What’s in a name? Future of Plain Language in a Converging Communication Profession

“‘Who in this room identifies their work with the following terms?”, Neil James asked.  “Plain language?” “Clear language?” “As an editor?” “A technical writer?” “An information designer?” His list went on, and multiple hands went up repeatedly.  It is, he pointed out, a fragmented profession.  The focus of his talk is that he forecasts a convergence of these positions, and that he believes in the benefits of this convergence.

Crystal Ball: Michael Philbrook

Neil James is Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation, based in Australia.   Unique to his presentation is that he has a doctorate in English, and so his experience as a practitioner of plain language is informed by the depth of his understanding of the history of plain language, and by communication theories.   The intellectual grounding behind his plain language talk added an interesting dimension to the conference.


James looked at some of the reasons behind such industry fragmentation.

One of the reasons is their origin.   These were just a few of the examples that he gave:

  • Why the term ‘plain language’?  He points to its origin from working with government and legal documents.
  • Why ‘technical writing’? He points to engineering and technical documents.
  • Why ‘information design’? This grew out of graphic and product design.
  • Why ‘editing’? This developed from books, newspapers, and magazines.

As further evidence of fragmentation, James noted a study by J A Anderson that looked at seven major communication texts and found they contained 249 distinct theories of communications. 80 percent of these theories were referred to in just one book, and just seven percent  were included in more than three books.  That leaves an awful lot of theories that are presented separately, with little synthesis.

Why else as a profession are we so fragmented?   James also pointed to history.   We evolved rapidly as a profession.

The development of separate industry associations, too, aided this fragmentation, as we developed institutional silos.


Next Neil James argued for what he called “the value of reunifying” our separate professions.

He pointed first to the ways that we are already alike.  We are not as distinct as we perhaps think.  James compared the ‘official’ definitions from the professional associations representing plain language, information design, technical communication and usability. There is much crossover in how they describe what they do.

Enormous a task that it may seem, James believes that this unification of professions is feasible.  We share a common heritage, he said.  We all share a goal of communication as practical discourse, which is anchored in the rhetorical tradition.

What separates us, he said, is not difference but degrees of difference, according to such things as the contexts we operate in, the texts we work with, the extent of our intervention, the methods we apply, and the focus of our work.

James argued that the similarities are so close that the future will bring ‘communication convergence’: a merger between currently separate fields.  He thinks that four trends will lead this pressure to converge: technology, the information age, state sanction and self-interest.

In the example of technology, over time the separate roles of writer, editor, typesetter and proofreader have been converging.  The traditional proofreader, for example, has largely disappeared.

Why is it to our benefit to converge? James believes that we can get more resources by sharing, as well as more recognition, greater impact, increased income, and improved professional status.

What strategies does he recommend, to lead toward this convergence between fields? Some of his suggestions included:

  • Start dialogue between and within fields
  • Do some research:  see just how similar we are – even as basic as what we earn, what texts we work on
  • Put the pieces together – eg. consider federation or mergers, formalize the dialogue
  • Engage stakeholders – from academia, for example, bring the research together from different fields
  • Pick a common name

On this last point, James placed emphasis.  To build strength, unifying the profession underneath one term will be necessary.  In his view,  ‘clear communication’ might be it.  According what he refers to as his ‘crystal ball’, we will evolve toward using this term to describe the field that we all work within.

At the end of Neil James’ presentation, Cheryl Stephens presents him with a gift of a talking stick, made by an Aboriginal artist.  When held, it signifies a person’s turn to speak.  The totem on the stick represents both community and communication.   It is an appropriate symbol too to suggest the two elements – community and communication – that will be necessary in drawing our separate fields together.

Image credit: Michael Philbrook


  1. Excellent, excellent article! It perfectly sums up what I have been thinking based on the direction my everyday work has been taking me. I think this article is so important–may I re-post it (with proper credits and links to your site) on my blog?

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