TCUK17 Keynote Speaker Frances Gordon – “Why topic-based writing and plain language need each other”


Frances Gordon will be giving her keynote talk on “Why topic-based writing and plain language need each other”.

Photo of Frances Gordon

According to the Center for Plain Language (US), plain language occurs when a person can find the information they need, understand the information they find, and use this information to meet their needs. Plain language practitioners often emphasise that this discipline involves multiple levels of a communication piece (context, content, structure, design, format, flow, readability, tone, and so on).

To be clear is to be consistent and brief, so the idea of topic-based writing is one that is gaining traction among plain-language practitioners. But it also works the other way: plain language can provide a very useful entry point into the mechanics of topic-based writing – how to stitch together groups of words, phrases and paragraphs in a way that makes sense in varied contexts, for varied users, even translated into varied languages.

Over the past 50 years or so, plain language has built up a solid foundation of research into how human beings read and process information. On the level of terminology, corpus studies can help technical writers to both identify complex words and to find simpler alternatives. It’s important to differentiate jargon from complex words and have a method for how to make decisions about both types of words.

Plain language as a discipline also has a lot to say about metaphor – all language has (or even is) metaphor – but we need to be conscious of how we use metaphor, avoiding extended metaphors, or those that can easily become ‘mixed’ when they appear alongside a different topic.

Another point is that pronouns need to have clear reference points within each content module – else they can very easily become lost, without any reference at all.

On a sentential level, we look at classic readability principles, such as the importance of understanding sentence complexity rather than just length, and how to create sensible rules about active and passive language, and nominalisations.

On a higher level still, we look at cohesion – a key issue for topic-based writing, where paragraphs must make sense as a stitched-together whole, and not as isolated units. Often the use of headlines is very valuable in promoting cohesion in this way.

In conclusion, plain language provides a set of ingredients that if combined with the right taxonomies and technologies, are a recipe for successful topic-based writing.

Frances Gordon will also be giving a presentation on “Dealing with jargon and technical terms”.

About Frances Gordon

Frances’ career started in rural South Africa where she wrote and designed educational materials for low literacy adults.

During her 20-year career, she has held tenures at Datatec/Logical as communications strategist, at London-based Siegel & Gale as Head of Content (EMEA), and at Barclaycard as VP of Content Strategy (UK).

Together with lawyer, Candice Burt, Frances co-founded Simplified, a plain-language and content training and consultancy firm. Its services include communication and content strategy, writing coaching, content audits, Treating Customers Fairly consultancy, and plain-language rewrites. Over 5 000 professionals, from lawyers to technical communicators, have benefited from the Simplified training programme.

Frances has worked on content for blue-chip international companies such as Alexander Forbes, MTN, Liberty Group, NS&I, Old Mutual and Vitality. She also has an active interest in financial inclusion programmes in frontier and emerging markets.

Frances sat on the board of international plain language organisation, PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational). She was part of the advisory committee of IC Clear, an EU-funded initiative that developed a post-graduate course in clear communication. She is an active member of Clarity in the UK, which is an organisation devoted to writing legal information clearly.