Interview with a… Plain Language Expert

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DDeborah Bosleyeborah Bosley heads up The Plain Language Group, based in Charlotte, North Carolina. In our latest job Q&A, we go behind the scenes of her work as a plain language practitioner to find out how it helps business and how to make it your career.

You can read about more digital communication jobs in our interview series.

What’s your job title?

Founder and Owner of The Plain Language Group.

What does your work involve?

  • Developing plans for increased business
  • Managing sub-contractors
  • Being the project manager for large contracts
  • Conducting usability and cognitive testing on documents and/or websites
  • Revising and redesigning content for documents and websites
  • Training employees to write using plain language principles and practices
  • Being an expert witness in lawsuits involving the ‘understandability’ of language.

What background do you need to become a plain language practitioner?

I began my career as a plain language expert while I was a professor of Technical Writing at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I’ve always believed that professors should have real-world experience in the subjects they teach so I began consulting 10 years before I retired from the University. But no one needs a PhD to be a plain language practitioner. Qualifications?

  • Having a college degree with a major or minor in rhetoric and writing.
  • Being a great writer (being a technical writer is very helpful)
  • Knowing how to create plain language documents
  • Understanding content from fields unfamiliar to you
  • Analysing and assessing original material.

What is the most challenging part of the job?

Seriously, at this point in the US, it’s keeping up with the business demand. There are so many new regulations that require the use of plain language and the private sector has begun to recognise the competitive advantage to using plain language – the field has exploded in the past few years.

What advice would you give to people who want to get into plain language work?

What’s the rate of pay?

Depends on the sector in which you’re working. If you’re working freelance, hourly rates are around US$75; with years of experience, you can make as much as US$250 or more an hour.

I think starting salaries are likely to be around US$45,000. However, the majority of plain language practitioners I know work freelance (as opposed to technical writers who tend to be salaried).

Is there job mobility and security?

Absolutely. I work primarily from home, meeting with potential clients on the phone or flying to their work site. The field of plain language is getting bigger every year. I believe more and more companies are recognising the value of creating easy-to-understand information. That need is only going to grow.

Any advice on training and development options?

My biggest advice is to call yourself a ‘plain language expert’ rather than a ‘plain language writer’. People tend to devalue writers and pay them less. Even technical writers make less than plain language experts. But take technical writing courses, which I think best prepare you for work in the plain language field.

In addition, attend plain language conferences and join the plain language organisations I mentioned earlier.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

The Plain Language Group continues to grow because of new regulations requiring the use of plain language.

But my advice to students who want to plan their path has been get a degree in technical writing, work at a company for about five years to get experience, rebrand yourself as a plain language expert, and start your own firm or work on subcontract to plain language firms.

Do you have a motto/guiding principle when you work?

I have two: ‘Good writing is good business’ and ‘People have a right to understand the information that affects their lives’.

Any final thoughts?

I recently had a high-level bank executive tell me that the biggest competition to plain language expertise is the trend toward using video to explain information or give instructions.

I would encourage students to be sophisticated in using social media and, in particular, to have some video production experience. Beyond that, be sure you have a passion for this work. Having that will take you far.

Deborah S Bosley is the Founder and Principal of The Plain Language Group. She passionately believes that people have the right to understand information that affects their lives, and flies all over the world helping agencies and companies create better content using plain language strategies. Wherever she is, however, she visits art museums, eats great food and wanders around joyfully.

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