Editor surveys staff to see whether they understand their own jargon

If you’re a web writer, an editor, or a plain language advocate, you’ve probably encountered this frustrating situation frequently. You’re editing a web page or document, and it’s loaded with jargon. You flag the terms you know readers won’t understand and ask the authors to provide plain language substitutes. “Why simplify?” the subject matter experts ask.  “Everyone knows what that term means.”

Sarah Shepard, Senior Engineering Research Editor for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), may have come up with the best strategy ever for showing her colleagues that jargon can compromise clarity. She’s intent on gathering quantitative data that will show that, in fact, not “everyone” gets DEC’s jargon. Sarah is testing DEC’s jargon on DEC itself.

Here’s how she’s doing it. Sarah (and the wordsmiths in the Division of Public Affairs and Education plus other DEC divisions) read through lots of DEC documents and content to identify jargon they’re pretty sure many readers don’t understand. They came up with hundreds of terms —riparian, mitigation, effluent, appropriation authority — then whittled the list down to the top 50. Then Sarah set up an anonymous online survey that asks DEC employees to choose the response that best represents their familiarity with each DEC jargon words or phrase:

  • I’m not familiar with this word
  • I’ve seen/heard this word, but don’t know what it means
  • I think I know what this means, but I’m not sure
  • I know the meaning of this word

That’s right. It’s a brilliant strategy. Sarah is asking her colleagues “Do we even understand each other? Because if we don’t get it, our readers — citizens — probably don’t get it either.”

So far, Sarah is pleased and surprised by how many people have responded to the survey, which has been open for only 5 days and already has 521 respondents. (DEC has 2800 employees, so the survey’s closing in on a 20% response rate!) And leading the survey as the three least familiar jargon terms: anadromous, down wood, and viewshed.  (Could someone pass me a dictionary?)

Sarah_ShephardMany thanks to Sarah for letting me interview her about the DEC jargon survey. I’m looking forward to sharing the survey results, and Sarah’s reflections on the survey’s outcomes, at the end of this month or the beginning of March.

If you have questions about the jargon survey or DEC’s plain language initiative, e-mail Sarah who told me, “I love connecting w/other Plain Language fans.”

Comments

Great post, Leslie. Thank you for sharing. In the Netherlands we've got some similar issues. A survey like Sarah's would bring more clarity into business, I think.

Posted by: Ednissink_com | February 27, 2011 at 09:35:29am

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