At one point or another in our professional lives we've all been handed an employee manual filled with regulatory code and overly complex explanations that put us to sleep before we even got a hint of their meaning. We certainly never learned to do our job better by reading that overbearing manual. Employee manuals should not read like an IRS instruction book. Instead, they should be written in a language that is accessible to your specific audience. This means you need to know your workers and their average level of reading comprehension in order to cater your instruction book to them.
Ted Finlayson-Schueler, executive director of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, N.Y., led a session on writing an effective special-needs transportation manual at the National Conference and Exhibition on Transporting Students with Disabilities in March. This point he could not stress enough — use "plain English" for memos, manuals and training documents. According to Finlayson-Schueler, 75 percent of the U.S. population reads at the eighth grade level, and we need to write at or below that level.
Use 'plain English' guidelines
Finlayson-Schueler says using "plain English" means selecting simple alternatives to the complex or technical terminology commonly used in manuals (see "language resources" below). For example, in the school bus industry we use terms like "compartmentalization" and cite codes like "FMVSS 213." Without defining these terms, we're excluding a large portion of our audience. "You can develop a work vocabulary," he explains. "But you have to provide access to that vocabulary." First, teach the terms. Then you can use them in your manual. However, you should still avoid using complex sentence structure or complicated wording. Here are some of Finlayson-Schueler's tips:
Set the thesaurus or spellchecker features of your word processing software to the grade level you are targeting and the software will help you select vocabulary for your audience.
If you know an employee has a language problem, match him or her up with a buddy who understands the language.
If you find you're writing at too high a grade level, shorten your sentence length and reduce multi-syllabic words. Aim for 15- to 20-word sentences, with an average of 1.5 syllables per word. Use a maximum of five sentences per paragraph.
Avoid preambles such as "In light of," "It would appear that" and "It is interesting to note that." These phrases are unnecessary and can be eliminated.
Get together a group of your employees and find out what their needs are. Get a feel for how to communicate with them. According to Finlayson-Schueler, using "plain English" does not equate to "dumbing it down." "If you analyze Hemingway's stories, they come out at the fourth-grade level, and no one ever accused Hemingway of being dumb," he says.
Value 'looks' as well as content
Finally, Finlayson-Schueler points out that design and layout also play roles in reading comprehension. Don't cram your manual so full of information that there is no white space left on the pages. Select a font of readable size (12- to 14-point sans serif) and leave ample margins and other areas of clear space so that the content is not overbearing in its density. Avoid using all caps, over-bolding or italicizing or using other type treatments. Use pictures or diagrams when possible to illustrate ideas. Bulleted and numbered lists are also helpful. Though the manual should be a collaborative effort, Finlayson-Schueler recommends having one person take charge of writing the document. This makes for a consistent writing style throughout.
Language resources on the Web
These Websites can help you select simple alternatives to complicated vocabulary or complex terminology.