Today is not only Friday the 13ths, but is also international plain language day. This is a day to bring attention to how so much of what we read (and sadly, write) is anything but plain language. From business reports and sales pitches filled with buzzwords that mean nothing, to laws and contracts that have in place an entire profession devoted to deciphering them for normal people, to of course scientific, medical, and most relevant for us, academic reports and assignments that talk in circles.
When did it become taboo for scientists to refer to themselves. Everything must be done by the royal we, or worse, not attributed to any particular person at all. “The tests that were done showed . . .”, “It was determined that the survey results should be adjusted . . . ” I deal with writing like this all the time at the Voice Magazine, partly because students are often trained to do it in their essays. Some of that is done directly by professors or secondary school teachers who think that the word “I” in an essay is a cardinal sin, or simply through minimum word counts that make students figure out the longest sentences they can use to say the smallest amount possible. I know how that works, I did it too.
However, I think that it primarily comes with fear. You’ll note that in that writing, whether in business documents, legal documents, or academic papers, the person doing the action is always pushed to the side. “Errors were made in the accounting department.” Who made them? The accounting department? That’s not clear, is it? It could have been some yahoo came in off the street and fudged the numbers. Writing like that, passive writing, is a way to keep yourself distant from what you’re writing. So that if you make a mistake, you can wave it off, “Oh, but if you read closely, you’ll see I didn’t ever say that I believed it myself.”
I tell my writers, and the newer writers especially, to own what they say, and if they make a claim, then do it with conviction because they know they’re correct, or don’t do it. This leads to writing that is more direct, shorter, and generally better. More importantly, it leads to writers who aren’t afraid to make direct claims, and who have more incentive to make sure they’ve got it right the first time.
All of which ties in nicely to this being a Friday the thirteenth. This is a day that most of us give little more than a knowing nod to, but that, for some, has serious implications. But, as a few of our writers point out in this issue, there are other aspects of this day, both in what happens during the day and what our fears of it can suggest.
Plain writing day also ties into our feature article this week (albeit weakly), where Carla Knipe looks at the newest trend in math education in primary and secondary schools. How much of the debate about the new method of teaching math comes from people not understanding the point? And from there, Jason Sullivan looks even deeper into the idea of education via rote understanding versus a more active approach.
And that’s not to forget everything else we have. So if you’re feeling a bit nervous about today, flipping through this week’s magazine should calm you down. And enjoy the read!