Writing clearly


Steph Talliss-Foster FAUA
Acting Director of Student Affairs, Birmingham City University

Richard Booth
Student Casework Manager, Birmingham City University

  Writing clearly. As professional support staff we should be able to do   it automatically. Right? Not so much.

A few years ago I was set a challenge to write Birmingham City University’s student-facing procedures in Plain English. I remember thinking ‘how hard can it be? I’ve loads of experience writing policies and procedures, this will be a doddle’. Sitting in my office writing this article for Newslink, I recall my foolish attitude with a wry smile. Like getting children to eat their greens, it’s a worthy cause but it’s a challenge.

Established as an independent body in 1979, Plain English Campaign (PEC [plainenglish.co.uk]) aims to reduce jargon and gobbledegook in public information. PEC accredits clearly written documents with a Crystal Mark. This was the challenge I was set; get the Crystal Mark for each procedure being written. I held endless consultation sessions getting information from colleagues about what they wanted, before using the guidance documents on PEC’s website to put those thoughts into text. Working with advisers from PEC was an incredible experience. If having to rethink phrases that I believed were commonly understood in HE (such as viva, and poor academic practice) was a surprise to me, others found it shocking. I presented the clearer versions to colleagues who wanted to cling to the previous ‘legalese’ style as if to a life raft in high seas; as if the old way of writing was somehow ‘more authoritative’. However, it didn’t take long for colleagues to see that the PEC way was clearer, had the right tone, and was quicker to read.

Fast-forward to summer last year, the AUA asked my colleague Richard and I to write a Good Practice Guide1, and we also submitted a working session proposal for the 2017 Annual Conference on writing clearly. On the way to Manchester, I asked Richard if he knew how many people had signed up for our session. I was worried that my fellow professionals would think it was a bit basic and opt for other exciting-sounding sessions such as ‘Transforming the approach to change’ or ‘Plugging into social business models’. I had visions of Richard and I having to make small talk as people hurried past our room. I was wrong. At one point there was standing room only. Not only that, people were interested, and writing down the things we were saying. We had a few slides where we shared some regulatory-style writing and asked colleagues to suggest amendments. The feedback was amazing. So many of our professional support colleagues wanted to know how to write clearly, and how to get commitment from their colleagues. Our AUA Guide gives more detail on this,
but our top tips are:

However, as we explained to colleagues who attended our session, writing clearly is not an overnight process. Learning the skills takes time, and once you have a few procedures awarded the Crystal Mark, you realise how many more documents need revision.

Now older and wiser, I am committed to writing all policies, procedures, handbooks, and guidance documents in Plain English, and with experience I’m getting better at it. I also eat more broccoli.

1Talliss-Foster, S and Booth, R (2016). Writing Clearly: Avoiding complex language in drafting policies and procedures. AUA Good Practice Guide No. 44 (AUA: Manchester). The Guide is available free of charge to all AUA members via the members’ area of the AUA website (members.aua.ac.uk).



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