METM21 Online Chronicles: Elina Nocera

Putting readers first: how embracing simplicity can help us communicate more effectively

Elina Nocera started her presentation by reading a short passage of text… a text that made me cringe inside and dread the rest of her presentation. Thankfully, Elina was using this text – which had won a “bad writing” contest – to illustrate how even grammatically correct text can be boring, unengaging, and difficult to get through.

As editors and language professionals, we must ensure that text communicates messages clearly and effectively; of course, we always have grammatical issues in mind, but we should also take an empathetic, reader-centric view when working.

During her presentation, Elina explained in concrete detail how to put readers first to ensure effective communication. We all know that we want to communicate well, but it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint areas that need work. Elina argued (very compellingly, I should add) that simple language is the best way to do this.

Writing in simple language means deconstructing complex concepts and explaining them in straightforward, human terms.

To simplify, language professionals can focus on “frontloading” information. Readers today read in an F shape, meaning that the first few sentences and first few words on the left side of the text receive the most attention. If the most important information and content is placed at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, readers are more likely to catch the substance of the text. This is even more important now that most people read on a screen and tend to skim texts; the smaller space makes it harder to process information, and there are more distractions, so being clear is incredibly important.

The easiest way to make sure the most important information is at the beginning of the sentence is to focus on the subject and the verb. They communicate the topic of the sentence and should stick together as much as possible. Placing them up front helps readers to understand the topic at the very beginning.

Another principle to help draw readers along is the light-before-heavy, or end-weight, principle. This means that familiar or old information or concepts are discussed before moving to new concepts. Starting with unfamiliar information at the beginning of a paragraph or sentence can confuse readers. Imagine if I had started this paragraph talking about frogs without any context! But if I started talking about Elina’s presentation and then provided a link to frogs, then there would be some logic and the link would be clearer to readers. (Don’t worry – there are no more frogs in this post.)

One misconception about simple language is that it’s always about “cutting out”. Although there are simpler alternatives to some wordy expressions, adding words can sometimes be more helpful than removing them. For example, adding context for cultural concepts or providing definitions for obscure words adds to the number of words, but it also provides more information and makes the content clearer for readers.

Elina also emphasized that sometimes rules are meant to be broken (or stretched). Instead of abiding by a hard no-passive-voice rule, she admitted that passive constructions can be useful when the subject of the sentence is unknown, for example. So while it’s good to know the principles of simple language – frontloading; varying sentence length; avoiding embedding information; light-before-heavy; avoiding passive voice, nominalizations, filler words and expressions – making decisions in the context of the text, and with the reader in mind, is always best.

This METM21 Online presentation was chronicled by Danielle Carter.

3 thoughts on “METM21 Online Chronicles: Elina Nocera

  1. Danielle, I appreciated your schematic and detailed analysis and description of Elina Nocera’s presentation. I think we all generally agree that texts should be “reader friendly”, but your commentary is rich with concrete examples of ways in which we can do that. The “front loading” concept was frequently mentioned in the recent MET and I heartily agree with the use of that concept although I don’t agree with the suggestion that was made several times that familiarity with this notion obviates the need for text professionals to become acquainted with the theme-rheme principle. I would say that, once you have taken on board the notion of front-loading, that should whet your appetite for understanding the theme-rheme model. and it fact fairly recently I took that principle as a starting point for further investigation along the same line – with excellent results. I was able to view Elina Nocera’s presentation and I thought she stated her case with great aplomb and plenty of concrete examples. Thanks to her for opening this interesting discussion.

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