A newcomer to Rossland is helping to clarify written and spoken language, one word at a time. Not through efforts in editing or promoting literacy, but by simplifying the legalese and mumbo jumbo of complex words that have permeated the Queen’s English.
Kate Harrison Whiteside has made a career out of something called “plain language” – essentially producing “clear communication.”
Her philosophy involves using a holistic approach, she says. Profiling the user to familiarize and find out what they need, and then tackling how to write, edit, design and deliver, whether it be a poster, document, printed materials, webpage, or media.
“It’s quite exciting, and exciting that I can do that kind of work from Rossland,” she said.
Since moving here, her local clients have included the Columbia Basin Trust, Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy, the City of Rossland, Selkirk College and clients in other provinces.
One wouldn’t think that the English language needs any help. After all, nearly a billion people speak it (according to a 2012 report). It is the third language spoken globally by native speakers and when combined with native and non-native speakers, English is the most common language used in the world.
But when it comes to writing or reading complicated documents, a lot of people are left scratching their heads.
And the problem doesn’t just exist within the English language. This multidimensional aggregate of interaction that results in an overdose of confusing words is just as wide-spread in other languages as it is in English.
Through the last few decades, use of complicated vernacular has spread like a virus. You’ll see it in legal or government documents, municipal records, schools and businesses. It rears its ugly head just about any place where a string of sentences could be replaced quite easily with just one.
But let’s back up the articulated vehicle.
How did Harrison Whiteside come across “plain language” and end up in Rossland and how could she possibly find enough gibberish to improve?
Harrison Whiteside started her career simply enough in Saskatchewan freelancing in communication services in 1986.
“My background is in journalism, business and adult education,” she said.
That year, she met a lawyer at a symposium and was contracted to simplify some documents for farmers.
“(Texts) were so complicated, people had to hire lawyers in order to understand them. And there was a strong movement in the legal profession to simplify language.”
For some time afterwards, she worked on federal correspondence, guidebooks, webpages and Excel spreadsheets. Her client list grew to include customers across Canada, the US and Europe.
Teaming up with other like-minded individuals, Harrison Whiteside and colleague, Cheryl Stephens, came up with the idea of forming an association to promote and provide services in clear communication. That was in 1994.
PLAIN (Plain Language Association International) has been going strong ever since.
The two hosted a global audience at their first conference in Winnipeg in 1995.
“When we first set up the organization, email had just come into existence and we dealt mostly with legal contacts around the world.”
After that, Harrison Whiteside took a hiatus from PLAIN, between 1997 and 2010. She moved to England and worked as a web editor for a weekly that was started by Wordsworth. Then she and her British-born husband came back to Canada, settling first in Calgary. There, she did more plain language work and found that the organization she and Stephens created had grown extensively to include people from all over the globe.
“It was fascinating to see how it evolved – different fields: law, health, education, and how it has built over time and moved from document readability to usability – not just understanding but easier access – evolving into design and online communication.”
PLAIN currently has several hundred members. Harrison Whiteside sits on the board of directors. The current president is from the U.S. and the incoming one is from Australia, she said.
“In October 2013, Cheryl and I coordinated the 20th anniversary conference in Vancouver. Over 250 people from as far away as Sweden, Australia and Asia attended.”
PLAIN is not the only organization striving for clear communication. I C Clear is another international consortium with many members of PLAIN.
“Their object is to share knowledge and provide those interested in getting a good standard of education in plain language. The majority who work are freelancers or consultants.”
I C Clear has developed a pilot course in plain language. So far, it has attracted 200 applicants from all over the world.
“This will be an important part of PLAIN moving forward.”
And I C Clear is partnering with another organization called Clarity to host a three day conference in November 2014 in Antwerp and Brussels. Clarity is a worldwide group of lawyers and citizens who advocate for plain language in place of legalese.
Harrison Whiteside settled in Rossland after her husband got a job with Teck. And although she’s only been in here a little over two years, she has jumped into community initiatives and is currently chairing the Rossland Sustainability Commission Innovative Education Task Force committee
“We just launched the Monashee Institute designed to combine learning and outdoor adventures for edu-tourism, led by local entrepreneurs and educators.”
She’s enjoys meeting other Rosslanders with quirky careers.
“There’s an energy here,” she said. “You can feel it when you walk down the street. (Rosslander) Terry Miller calls us ‘nomadic entrepreneurs.’ I never dreamed I could have the same or better level of clients as in the (big) city. Lucky to have a mix of clients: old, new, national. Rossland is all about having a balanced life.”
For more on PLAIN, see the website at.www.plainlanguagenetwork.org or contact Harrison Whiteside at firstname.lastname@example.org