Professionalizing plain language

3: Should we …?

The last chapter of the Options paper, which goes on to recommend the type of institution we should create, begins:

Before we can decide which of the many activities in this options paper we might pursue, we must discuss an inevitable difficulty: exactly who will coordinate and fund this effort? What role will existing organisations play and what new institutional structures might we need? [my emphasis]

It is not clear whether "this effort" refers to the decision as to what functions the new organisation is to have or to its implementation. But we should decide what we are going to do before deciding the best way to do it, and certainly before we create another bureaucratic structure. This was recognised in the 2009 draft of this chapter, whose proposed timetable I summarised in part 2. But that timetable has been dropped, and with it the suggestion that we begin by deciding what the new organisation is to do. Now the question of what the new organisation will do has been left open and is likely to remain undecided for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile there is a firm recommendation to create a federation of Clarity, PLAIN, and CPL whose only members would be those 3 organisations. (Other members might later be admitted, but only at the discretion of the original 3.)

So should we proceed?

No, if the proposal is to use our limited resources to create an organisation with power to do … we're not sure what, but a small minority of us can decide that later. I'll explain below why it would be a small minority.

But once we've decided what to do, would it be a good idea?

Should we certify plain language practitioners and create an institute?

Phil Knight thinks not. In a November 2009 email to the Clarity committee he wrote:

Writing is art, and art is best when it is unbound. Shelley famously wrote that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" — those who change things not by power and prescription, but by poetics and praxis. In Clarity, we seek to change the manner of communication, and we do so best by persuasion and by example. Poets use language to challenge the world, its perceptions, its habits, its ideas of what is normal, even in the manner of presenting writing. That is what Clarity is about. Let us then seek to be poets — as you have demonstrated in this paper — rather than legislators of the language. I prefer to see us encouraging experimentation, challenging the idea of what is normal, searching endlessly for, and occasionally demonstrating, what may be better.

At that time I thought that while Phil might be right in theory, most legal text is so impenetrable and inefficient that even constrained art would be a great improvement, especially for lawyers, who don't need to be poets. A determined effort to achieve that through a respected institute might build on the modest foundations that we'd already laid. And although the creation of an international (and perhaps even multi-lingual) profession(a) (as defined in part 1) seemed wildly over-ambitious, I thought we might take our campaign to another level.

But seeing Clarity (by far the largest, oldest, and most professionally(a) based of the organisations) unravel — losing its democracy, its professional(a) ethos, and its members — has changed my mind. You cannot build a large structure on crumbling foundations. Nor should anyone (but especially a self-selected group) be entrusted with a monopoly. Phil was right in practice as well as in theory.

How much control would individual plain language practitioners have over the new organisation?

If the James recommendation is implemented, the plain language "profession" would be controlled by a body representing and controlled by Clarity, PLAIN, and CPL. There are two serious objections to this:

I'll elaborate on those points separately.

Lack of a mandate

Anyone can join any one or more of the 3 organisations, so long as they pay the subscription and are not vetoed by those in control. They do not have to be plain language practitioners or even supporters, except that PLAIN limits its membership to "people … who support [its] objectives and policies" (as defined in article 6 of its bylaws).

But does anyone know how many plain language practitioners are not members of any of these organisations? I know of quite a few and suspect that there are many — perhaps many more than those who are members. Does anyone know who they are and how to contact them? Cheryl Stephens has found quite a tranche through her LinkedIn group Plain Language Advocates but there must be many others working in many different fields in many different countries. They have no voice in this project. Nor does the general public or its representatives.

Lack of accountability

Clarity

Clarity was (and legally remains) a members' group formed under English law with (like the United Kingdom) an unwritten constitution developed by custom. Both English law and the informal constitution entitle all members to:

  • an equal say in the management (that is, who manages Clarity and what they do in Clarity's name); and
  • equal ownership of Clarity's assets.

However, it is over 5 years since a properly constituted members' meeting has been held, a vote conducted, or accounts presented, and Clarity is now run by a small self-appointed group with no mandate from the members. The committee's influence over the management group has waned, with many committee members taking no active part.

In 2010 the unelected president told members that they had no right to vote, either for officers or policy, and that everything would be decided by the unelected, self-perpetuating, and largely dormant committee. He tried to push through a new constitution formally establishing this structure, using a draft so lacking in transparency that hardly anyone noticed its undemocratic implications. Members' views were to be sent to the president's email address, where they might be taken into account; but there was to be no free discussion. The existence of an independent forum set up for members to discuss the constitution was condemned as disruptive. Strong opposition — on the grounds that the proposed constitution was unlawful and fundamentally wrong — elicited a promise to consult members about what sort of constitution they wanted, but the draft constitution was not withdrawn and 8 months later the members have still not been consulted (unless there has been a development since Clarity 64 was published in May).

Meanwhile, a new president was appointed for 3 years without reference to the members, who still have no say in how Clarity is run.

Center for Plain Language

CPL's website gives no indication of the Center's ownership or constitution. Anyone can "join" but standard membership seems just to mean subscribing to a newsletter. Joining as a "Friend" ($250 a year) or "Partner" ($500 a year) entitles the "member" to be included on CPL's "referral list of plain language trainers and consultants" although they are not vetted, and need give only their name, email address, and credit card details.

The advertised membership benefits do not include any say in how the Center is run or in what it does.

PLAIN
In contrast, PLAIN, a Canadian corporation, is democratically run by its members, with its bylaws openly accessible from its website.
The new federation

It is difficult to see how 3 organisations with such different structures, sizes, constituencies, and objectives could form a balanced federation.

Will each of the new institution's 3 members have 1 vote, with majority rule? Then the 2 undemocratic organisations combined could have overall control.

(And all 3 organisations are becoming increasingly combined. Among other links, CPL's chair was co-opted onto Clarity's committee and into the last president's inner circle; it was she who drafted Clarity's undemocratic proposed constitution; and it was she who suggested, according to the minutes of a meeting held at Clarity's Lisbon conference "a consolidated membership to the 3 plain language organisations". Meanwhile, Clarity's journal — paid for by Clarity's members and supposedly devoted to legal writing — is now routinely devoted to other material; entire issues are given over to publishing the proceedings of PLAIN conferences and now to the Options paper.)

Or will votes depend on how many members each organisation has? In that case Clarity would probably have overall control.

The project:

Although the project would affect everyone with an interest in plain language — and might affect many of them adversely — as far as I can see the Options paper is not advertised, nor is it freely available other than to members of Clarity, PLAIN, and CPL. However, a hard copy of Clarity 64, which happens to contain the paper, is available from Clarity's website for US$20 for those who know to look for it there.

In his preamble to the paper its editor Neil James, as chair of the working group, invites feedback. But he does so in a way reminiscent of the opaque form of consultation adopted last year by Clarity's then president about its constitution: any comments are to be sent to Neil.James@plainenglishfoundation.com. Only PLAIN has invited open discussion, but that is on a forum which has recently been closed to non-members of PLAIN and (as I write this on 6 June 2011) only 4 members have commented.

26 June 2011update:

In two 17 June responses to the discussion generated by this paper on LinkedIn, Should we make "plain language" into a profession?, Neil James:

  • Made the Options paper (published 18 April) accessible to everyone, inviting downloads from this address.
  • Invited comments from all interested parties (to be sent by 12 September).
  • Changed the email address for feedback to iplwgr@gmail.com.
  • Reluctantly rejected calls for a discussion forum open to everyone (on the basis that "we don't have one" although there was one on the project's website, CLARITY has a forum, and PLAIN has a listserve; but perhaps there is some reason why none of these can be used).

The standards we seek to impose

All creative activities deteriorate when controlled by authority, and the truth suffers when dissent is discouraged. Extreme examples can be found in the stagnant, self-defeating control of science and the arts in dictatorships of the left and right, but all authority is incompatible with individualism; inertia prefers the status quo to innovation; so, frequently, do those in charge.

Clarity's writing and editorial standards have already fallen sharply. An organisation devoted to skilled, accurate, jargon-free writing no longer practises what it preaches. For instance, its website says "We promote our [unspecified] goals by … planning a biennial conference" as well as by "linking plain language advocates and encouraging them to share best practices and lessons learned". In the latest journal page 2 alone has 6 careless mistakes.

Moreover, we promote plain language as part of the right to transparency and truth. Yet strong criticism last year of Clarity's new methods and plans from many normally silent members — some of them eminent lawyers, some threatening to resign — was ignored by the management team, who continue to report members' "strong support" for their plans.

Should the standards by which all plain language practitioners are judged be set by unrepresentative and undemocratic organisations and by writers whose own (sometimes unimpressive) skills have not been vetted? Should plain language practitioners have to depend for their professional certification on these judges?

Is there anything better we might be doing?

Yes.

Poor writing, unacceptable management methods, and an ill-considered project will not "advocate for" plain language; on the contrary, they will undermine its credibility.

Let's stop talking about grand, unrealistic schemes; instead, let's write well and teach others to do so (not least by example). We should persuade and practise, not preach and prescribe. As Bryan Garner so pithily puts it in The Winning Brief: "Show, don't tell".

Websites checked 6 June 2011.

   

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