Writing for All Readers

This is the eighth of a series of ten blogs about ten cultural flips for multiage inclusion. It’s not enough to shift our culture. We really have to flip it.

 

Cultural Barrier #8: High reading level (high school and above) of almost all of Friends’ written materials

Why is this a barrier to multiage inclusion?

Not too long ago, I took some documents from my own yearly meeting and ran them through a readability analysis tool online. Here’s how they scored:

Report from Twice-Yearly Extended Worship: 11.3 (high school level)

Explanation of Budget for Aging Resources Program: 13.7 (college level)

Report from Yearly Meeting Retreat Center: 12.0 (high school level)

New Section of Faith and Practice, Use of Technology in the Conduct of Business: 16.4 (graduate level)

There’s no doubt in my mind – this is crazy. Does Spirit really give us things to say that can only be expressed at a graduate school reading level? That doesn’t strike me as the God I know.

Some Friends, upon hearing these statistics, have argued, “Well, this readability analysis of yours is just an Internet tool. Surely it’s not really that hard for young people to understand.”

My experience tells me otherwise. A couple of years ago, I worked with my meeting’s First Day School to develop a Quaker Jeopardy game. Our middle- and high-school students looked through our handbook, yearbook, and Faith and Practice to find questions they could ask the adults of our meetings. And they couldn’t comprehend them. Over and over again, I had to translate.

And this kind of writing doesn’t only exclude our children and youth.  It also makes life difficult for people who never went to college, people who are still learning English, and people living with a learning disability.

 

Culture Flip #8: Using shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary in all documents

What does this look like in a monthly meeting and beyond?

Although it’s important to translate Quaker jargon, that’s not the particular problem that I’m referencing here. Readability is about using simpler words and shorter sentences. To show what I mean, I’m going to try a little translation.

Here’s a paragraph from my yearly meeting’s Faith and Practice, the section called “Use of Technology in the Conduct of Business,” with a readability score of 11.8:

The use of digital communication systems in the conduct of Friends’ business has great benefits and has also created challenges for Quaker business process. The use of technologies such as video conferencing and electronic mail makes it possible to reduce the need for travel, and thereby expands participation by distant Friends. Our business can be responsive to the fast pace of developments in the world. Many Friends expect to use these technologies as they engage in the life of the Society. At the same time, we must be mindful that among us are Friends who cannot or choose not to use these technologies freely.

And here’s a translation, with a readability score of 8.1:

Sometimes using computers and other technology is helpful. Sometimes it makes things harder for some people. Video conferences and email help us communicate without traveling. That means more Friends can participate. Using technology also means we can do things faster. Many Friends use this kind of technology. Still, we have to remember that some Friends don’t use it.

Second paragraph, the original, readability score 20.5 (no, that’s not a typo, this is actually PhD-level writing):

When use of these technologies replaces or augments face-to-face meetings, we must maintain discipline so that corporate worship, spiritual discernment, and the presence of the Spirit in our meetings and assemblies is retained. Each Yearly Meeting body that uses these technologies should establish agreements and protocols to ensure inclusivity and full participation, protect privacy and confidentiality, maintain collegiality, and support openness to Spirit.

And here’s a translation, with a readability score of 7.7:

Sometimes we use technology instead of face-to-face meetings. We have to be careful to remember that worship, discernment, and Spirit are still important. That might change how we use technology. Also, we should use technology in ways that help make sure everyone can participate. We need to be careful of people’s privacy and be kind to each other. Remember that the Spirit’s guidance is most important.

Last original paragraph, with a readability score of 17.5:

Committees and other Yearly Meeting bodies seeking to conduct business by ways other than physical meetings should do so only upon formal approval at a face-to-face meeting. While they may choose to use e-mail or other asynchronous digital communication for scheduling meetings or distributing documents, they are advised not to use it to share ministry, respond to proposals, or engage in substantive discussions. These activities are best suited to synchronous communication such as physical meetings or telephone or video conferencing.

And a translation, with a readability score of 8.0:

Some committees will want to use technology instead of meeting in person. All members need to agree that that’s okay before they do it. It’s good to have some special rules about email. Email is useful for scheduling meetings and sending out documents. But it’s not very useful for sharing ministry or having long discussions. Ministry and discussion work better when people can talk and listen together. Meetings in person, phone calls, and video conferences are good for that.

The translated writing is certainly less elegant, but as in the conversation about money, I have to ask myself which is more important—that the writing is elegant, or that it’s understandable? If we hope that all people will be able to make their voices heard, then we have to make sure that our reports and our Faith and Practice can be understood by people of all ages (and levels of education and linguistic backgrounds). You can’t participate meaningfully if you’re left out of understanding what’s going on.

In preparing these translations, I used an online readability analysis to repeatedly calculate the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of the selections. For each, I had to rewrite and further break down the sentences at least four times before reaching middle school level writing. I recommend you give it a try; find a selection from a recent committee report or your own Faith and Practice and see what happens when you translate.

Some key tips:

1) Make shorter sentences.

2) Use no more than five sentences in a paragraph.

3) Be careful of words with more than two syllables. You can use them, but try to use as few of them as possible.

4) Use active voice. Never say that something will happen without identifying who will do it. Instead of, “the decision regarding schedule will be made…” try, “the committee will decide the schedule.”

Like explaining Quaker jargon and process, this is a skill that takes practice. But it’s worth learning. Give it a try.

 

The Cultural Barrier The Flip!
Perception that Friends’ meetings are internally focused and irrelevant Doing frequent work and service in neighborhood communities outside the meetinghouse walls
Equating seriousness with sacredness Behaving as though joy and gratitude are as holy as struggle and lamentation, including 50/50 time division for the whole meeting between play together and work together
Frequent use of Quaker terminology without context Practicing brief, clear explanations and contextualization of all terms and references to institutional structure, every time, in the moment, as we go
Communicating solely through paper publications and websites Developing a meaningful presence on social media (for internal communications and outreach)
Idolatry of Quaker process Building a permission-giving culture (the default answer is ‘yes, and how can I help?’ unless there is a strong, Spirit-led reason to hesitate)
Valuing traditions over the needs of living Friends Regularly reexamining physical facilities, procedures, and practices in the light of how they are working for our communities today; recognizing the difference between our Spirit-led testimonies (which are eternal) and how we express those testimonies (which may need to change as circumstances change)
High financial cost of participation in gatherings Shifting to pay-as-led pricing; changing locations and structures of gatherings so the actual cost is lower
High reading level (high school and above) of almost all of Friends’ written materials Using shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary in all documents
Isolation of parents (among Friends and in society in general) Providing childcare at all meeting events without exception; prioritizing spiritual and practical nurture of parents
Consistent physical separation of age groups Aiming for multi-age inclusion around 50% of the time, including integration both ways (younger Friends in traditionally older Friends spaces/activities, older Friends in traditionally younger Friends spaces/activities); providing meaningful support to make full participation possible in both directions

 

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4 thoughts on “Writing for All Readers

  1. Thank you, Emily! I am loving your series on flipping. It has the freshness, simplicity, truth that I recognise from Spirit-led work. Thank you for what you are doing. I am drinking it in as I am learning ways of doing this work where I am.

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