Introducing a whole country to plain language

Thanks to Vera Gergely, plain language advocate and practitioner in Hungary, for this week’s blog. I met Vera on Skype a couple of weeks ago when she wanted some information to help launch plain language awards in Hungary. I was so impressed with her story and her pioneering spirit. Trying to start a plain language movement inside one organisation is challenging enough. Imagine trying to introduce a whole country to the idea!

So Lynda asked me to write a guest post on how I became interested in plain language. Before we get to this, let me introduce myself. I have a degree in economics, worked as a software tester for 5 years, and I’m a mom to a two-year-old who never stops. Also, I want to start the plain language movement in Hungary.

As you can probably deduce from my previous statement, basically no one has ever heard of plain language here. There wasn’t even a Hungarian expression for it before (now it’s called ‘közérthető fogalmazás’ in case you’re wondering). So the question arises: how did I hear of plain language?

When I started working as a software tester at a huge firm, part of my job was to test new features of the software. I received the documentation on what the new feature should do (the specification), and I checked the software to see if it indeed worked that way.

Once I learned the ropes of the system I realised that the specifications were not always clear. They were sometimes self-contradictory, or missing important information. So I asked for clarifications. Sometimes these were small things, but just as often they had a huge impact, and the whole project could be delayed as a result of these inconsistencies.

Next thing I know, they started to send me the specifications before they implemented them. This way we could fix the inconsistencies first, saving development costs. One thing followed another, and soon I was not just getting invited to the specification meetings, I was writing the actual specification itself.

At this point everyone was happy, since:

  • the specification was nicely structured, with visuals where needed
  • business and development both could understand the specification
  • there were no more misunderstandings about the scope or the details, and
  • nothing important was left out.

All of this meant that projects were no longer delayed because of a less-than-perfect specification. Obviously some were delayed because of other reasons but that was not my responsibility.

But where does plain language come in? Well, it took me a while, but I realised that what I was doing was writing in plain language — so that everybody involved could understand the document at once. And then it didn’t take much to realise that I want to do this full-time. I want to help create easily understandable documents, and teach other people how to create them. In Hungary we are plagued by bureaucratic and technical jargon, legalese, and all sorts of gobbledygook. So wish me luck in getting rid of them!

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