Chapter 1. Understanding Plain Language and Opportunities to Use It

Chapter 1 sets the stage for understanding the intersection of plain language and ethics. Willerton begins by discussing conflicting perspectives on ethics and plain language in technical communication. Next, he provides an overview of the worldwide movement toward plain language. The chapter identifies key points in plain-language history around the world over several centuries. Willerton identifies major initiatives and organizations supporting plain language, and he acknowledges and addresses common criticisms of plain language. Willerton then introduces the BUROC model for situations in which plain language supports ethical action. He closes the chapter with a preview of the book’s subsequent chapters. 

Chapter 2. Overview of Ethics in the Technical and Professional Communication Literature

Chapter 2 reviews the literature on ethics in technical and professional communication (TPC). Willerton begins by identifying professional organizations providing publications on professional topics, including ethics. Next, he discusses foundational principles of ethics in TPC; these include Kantian views of imperative behavior, utility, and care and feminist approaches. The chapter continues with an extensive review of the field’s articles and essays on ethics, which fit primarily into professional and academic categories. Willerton offers Buber’s dialogic ethics as a model for understanding ethical implications of using plain language. 

Chapter 3. Perspectives on Plain Language and Ethics from Professionals around the World

Chapter 3 connects theory with practice by presenting views on ethics from leading plain-language practitioners around the world. Willerton interviewed 25 practitioners from several countries. This chapter includes the professionals’ definitions of ethical behavior for plain-language writers; their views on whether “Plain language is a civil right,” as Vice President Al Gore once notably stated; their views of the strengths and weaknesses of Buber’s I–You dialogic ethics model; and their insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the BUROC situations model of opportunities for ethical plain-language use. 

Chapter 4. Profile: Healthwise, Inc.

In chapter 4, Willerton provides a profile of plain-language work at Healthwise, a nonprofit company providing health information in several formats for consumer audiences. Consumers face many BUROC situations that relate to health and medical issues. The chapter gives a background of the organization and states the connection between Healthwise content and BUROC situations. Willerton describes the organizational culture at Healthwise and shows how its commitment to plain-language content permeates the company. He then discusses the practices Healthwise employees use to ensure their content is appropriately plain for their audiences. Willerton concludes with lessons others can learn from the approach of Healthwise. 

Chapter 5. Profile: Civic Design

This chapter describes plain-language content creation at Civic Design, focusing on the Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent it distributes throughout the US. Civic Design has been an ongoing project more than it has been an organization. Dana Chisnell leads the project and collaborates with other professionals as appropriate for each project. Voting is one BUROC situation among many relating to citizenship in a democracy, and local election officials face many challenges in overseeing voting activities. In this chapter, Willerton describes how and why Civic Design creates content in plain language. He identifies practices that support dialogue between Civic Design and audience members, and he provides lessons that others may take away from the approach of Civic Design. 

Chapter 6. Profile: Restyling the Federal Rules of Evidence

Chapter 6 provides a profile of the plain-language work to revise or “restyle” the Federal Rules of Evidence, which govern how evidence may be introduced into US courts. A series of committees worked together on the project over five years. The Evidence Rules address BUROC situations that occur in courtrooms every day; decisions about evidence are especially urgent and critical because judges and attorneys must make them quickly, with little advance notice. This chapter cites the extensive records of the committee’s work and includes Willerton’s interviews with two people who participated significantly in the restyling work: Professor Joseph Kimble of Cooley Law School and US District Judge Robert L. Hinkle. Many in the legal community oppose plain legal language and prefer the status quo because any change to the rules affects many people. In this chapter, Willerton describes how proponents of plain language addressed concerns from critics of change and from skeptics of plain language. This chapter provides valuable lessons that others can take away from the approach that the committee members followed. 

Chapter 7. Profile: CommonTerms

Chapter 7 is a profile of CommonTerms, an international grassroots project to which members contribute through distributed online work and occasional in-person meetings. CommonTerms provides an online tool that generates plain-language summaries of complex terms-and-conditions documents that internet and software users frequently encounter but rarely read. Pär Lannerö of Sweden leads the project and coordinates work with other professionals. Online privacy is a BUROC issue that worries many; consumers sometimes regret agreements they consent to in their haste to access a service or download a program. Willerton describes how CommonTerms developed and tested its online tool before release, and he identifies lessons others can take away from Common Terms.

Chapter 8. Profile: Health Literacy Missouri

This chapter provides a profile of the work of Health Literacy Missouri (HLM), a nonprofit organization based in St. Louis, Missouri. Citizens with low health literacy regularly face BUROC situations affecting their health and well-being, and experts estimate that one in four Missourians struggles with low health literacy. HLM integrates plain language and health literacy in innovative ways that empower clients to improve their own communication skills. HLM focuses on training health-care providers, reviewing clients’ documents to improve their clarity, and raising awareness about health literacy. Willerton describes how HLM content and services address BUROC situations, who creates plain-language content at HLM, and how ethics and organizational culture affect HLM’s work. The chapter closes with lessons that other plain-language professionals can take away from HLM. 

Chapter 9. Profile: Kleimann Communication Group and TILA-RESPA Documentation

Chapter 9 provides a profile of the work done by a small consulting firm, Kleimann Communication Group, to redesign mortgage disclosure documents required by the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA). Working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Kleimann Communication Group used iterative development and frequent usability testing to redesign two industry-standard documents that are required for mortgage-loan transactions covered by TILA and RESPA. Kleimann Communication Group worked with home-purchase professionals and consumers in nine cities across the US to obtain a significant amount of feedback on proposed designs. Willerton provides valuable lessons that others can take away from the approach that Kleimann Communication Group followed. Questions and exercises follow.

Chapter 10. Public Examples of Dialogic Communication in Clear Language in the 21st Century

In chapter 10, Willerton discusses prominent applications of plain language to technical content in public settings. Although the people developing these applications have not explicitly aligned themselves with advocates for plain language, they do create clear, accessible content while gathering feedback through dialogue with their audiences. These content creators include Mignon Fogarty, creator of Grammar Girl and the Quick & Dirty Tips websites and books; John Wiley & Sons in its For Dummies series; Booster Shot Media, which creates educational materials about asthma; Common Craft, a Seattle duo who pioneered the development of online explanation videos; and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which uses a variety of workshops and theatrical-improvisation exercises to help technical experts communicate with nonexperts. While some of these content creators address BUROC situations more than others do, collectively they provide content that empowers consumers to act and challenges the power differential that separates experts from nonexperts. 

Chapter 11. Conclusion

Willerton concludes the book by summarizing major insights from previous chapters and by asserting that plain language can support ethical action. He returns to the BUROC framework and assesses its value as a heuristic for identifying difficult situations in which individuals can benefit from information in plain language.

Go to top