Fly fishing is often hailed as the elite of all fishing sports. The world over, fans of fly fishing will tell you that the experience of seeking out fish and luring them with an artificial ‘fly’ is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Many will tell you that the sport isn’t even necessarily about catching a fish. And some will even say fly fishing is a spiritual experience.
Whenever I assess a document against our Plain Language Standard, I’m reminded of the basic principles of fly fishing. Sound crazy? You may think so. But let me explain.
Write’s Plain Language Standard covers three sets of elements:
For a document to perform at its best, so it gets its messages across to its reader quickly and efficiently, it needs to perform well across each of these elements. To catch that beautiful 10lb brown trout (or incredible 20lb salmon), an angler needs to translate these elements to their task too.
The critical ‘big picture’ elements of a document include having a clear purpose, content that supports this purpose, good structure, and appropriate headings.
The ‘big picture’ elements of a fly-fishing trip are equally crucial. Any expedition starts out with planning. You usually can’t just turn up at any old river and expect to catch a trout. Before you leave on your expedition, you need to investigate what rivers are where, find out how you can access a river once you’ve identified it, and check out whether you need permission. And you definitely need to check the forecast on the day.
In our Plain Language Standard, language elements relate to things like paragraphs, sentences, words, and tone.
To me, the equivalent of these language elements for a fishing trip come down to finer planning. This is where you make choices about what type of rod, line, and fly you’ll use to tempt that beautiful fish. You can’t make decisions about this until you’ve properly considered the ‘big picture’ elements — all these details depend on earlier decisions. For example, you may decide to use a lightweight rod, a floating line, and a cicada fly because it’s a perfect summer’s day and the cicadas are out in force. Alternatively, it may have been raining and the river is high and murky, so you’ll choose a sinking line with a San Juan worm to imitate what’s been flushed into the river. Options can be many, but they need some consideration before you cast that fly.
For a document to get its main messages across effectively, it needs clear layout and suitable presentation. It also needs to be error-free.
To catch a beautiful brown trout, an angler needs to use a fly that successfully mimics the insect a fish may be eating on that day and under those conditions. Once they have it, they need to present their fly in a way that looks as close to natural as possible — a gentle dry fly on the water’s surface or a weighted wet fly in the main current. And any error you make in any part of your expedition could jeopardise your chances of catching a fish.
A perfect result from a plain language perspective is a document that gets its message across quickly, simply, and even elegantly. From the reader’s experience, a good document is hassle-free and user-friendly. Plain language should minimise stress levels, even when used to convey difficult content.
That’s just the same with fly fishing, or at least it is from my perspective. Nothing about a fishing expedition should be stressful — if you’re doing it right. With the right attitude and the right planning (at all levels of detail), you’ll create the perfect result.
In the words of the American short story writer Washington Irvine, ‘There is certainly something in angling that tends to produce serenity of mind.’ To me, a document that incorporates the three elements of our Plain Language Standard should do the same.
Take a look at the Write Plain Language Standard (free to download). It’s a set of 10 statements that describe the features of a clear, reader-friendly, and effective document. You can use the Standard as a checklist to quickly assess any document.