MET workshops

Readability: 10 strategies for improving flow in translated or non-English speakers’ texts

Authors, editors and translators—writers of different ilks but writers nonetheless—all have similar problems when producing their texts: they have to ensure that the written word compensates for the intonation and gestures so characteristic of speech; they get no immediate feedback from readers and so must take extra care to ensure that communication does not break down; they know full well what they want to say and therefore do not realize that their logic may be flawed or their expression faulty; and many of them have never received any formal instruction in writing and are unaware that their texts may not have the intended effect on others. Readers, therefore, may find a text difficult to follow, not through any fault of their own but because it has been shoddily written.

These problems can exist in the texts of authors writing in their own language but they are often accentuated in English texts written by non-English speakers, many of whom consider writing to be an essential part of their professional life but not one that they relish or for which they have been trained. Likewise, texts translated by native speakers can be unidiomatic or cumbersome because of the undue influence of the source. An awareness of the problems that readers have in understanding writing can help writers when composing and revising to focus on the essence of the meaning and to convey the message more efficiently.

This workshop aims to describe 10 strategies by which authors, translators and editors can improve intra- and inter-sentence flow and thus make texts more readable.

Developer and facilitator: John Bates

Purpose: To identify 10 salient features of clear, flowing text so that authors, translators and editors can objectively determine whether their texts will be readily understood by their intended audience.

Description: The workshop will describe 10 features of flowing text, illustrate each feature with sentence-level examples or short paragraphs, and give authors, translators and editors clear advice on the strategies they need at the composition and revision stages for their prose to be clear and effective. Participants will be given the opportunity to revise short texts produced by both native and non-native English speakers. Most of the examples are taken from scientific research articles but the principles are broadly applicable to many institutional and business texts.

Structure: Each feature of flowing text will first be described. Participants will then be given short samples to revise or discuss individually or in groups.

Who should attend? The workshop will be useful to all those who have to compose or revise texts, but who lack objective principles for improving their own drafts or other writers’ poorly written texts.

Outcome skills: Following the workshop, the participants will be able to recognize the features of flowing texts and identify obstacles to readability. They will be able to base their composition and revision work on sound, objective principles so the texts they produce will be readily understood by their intended audience.

Pre-meeting information: For classic advice on clear writing, one of the obvious places to look—if you have not already done so—is William Strunk’s work The Elements of Style. Although published for the first time almost 100 years ago, much of what it has to say is still valid today. Find the online version at the following address: http://www.bartleby.com/141/index.html

If you don’t have enough time to do Strunk justice, a very brief introduction to some of the principles discussed in the workshop (particularly actors, actions and nominalizations) can be found at http://writing-speech.dartmouth.edu/learning/materials/materials-first-year-writers/attending-style.

Finally, if you really want to get to grips with style and everything it entails, a personal favourite of mine is WILLIAMS, J. M. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990. As the author says at the beginning of chapter 1, in direct reference to Strunk, “This is a book about writing clearly. I wish it could be short and simple like some others more widely known, but I want to do more than just urge writers to ‘Omit Needless Words’ or ‘Be Clear.’ Telling me to ‘Be Clear’ is like telling me to ‘Hit the ball squarely.’ I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it. To explain how to write clearly, I have to go beyond platitudes.”

Hopefully (despite the feelings of many, it is quite correct to use “hopefully” at the beginning of a sentence) this workshop will be one step in this direction: going beyond the platitudes and writing clearly.

About the facilitator:

John Bates is Head of the Language Service of the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona.
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