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Merel Elsinga

Update on the International Plain Language Standard: An Interview with Gael Spivak

Illustration of a text document with a rosette adorned with a star at the bottom of the page.
Illustration of a text document with a rosette adorned with a star at the bottom of the page. (dacianlogan © 123RF.com)
Copyright: dacianlogan

Gael Spivak, a previous president of Editors Canada, works in-house for the federal government as a writer and editor. Part of her job is her involvement in creating an international plain language standard for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

At the Editors Canada conference on June 13, 2021, Gael gave us an update on the proposed standard. Recently, editor Merel Elsinga interviewed Gael to learn a bit more about the process of creating the standard. (This interview has been lightly edited.)

Merel Elsinga: Can you give us a brief timeline for the development of the international plain language standard?

Gael Spivak: The International Plain Language Federation (IPLF) started working on developing a standard in 2008. They adopted a definition of plain language in 2014. IPLF then established a standards committee to create a plan to realize the draft. In the fall of 2019 ISO’s technical writing committee, TC 37, gave approval for work on a plain language standard to begin. A working group of experts, WG 11, was formed to develop the standard.

WG 11 developed a draft that is versatile and easy to use, and ready for approval by TC 37. For the first time, we will have an agreed-upon standard on what plain language is and how to create plain language documents. And it works in most languages and cultures.

More details about the timeline are available in this Google Docs file.

ME: Can you tell us about your personal involvement with ISO?

GS: I represent Canada as an expert on language and terminology on TC 37 (which represents 63 countries) and WG 11. Like all WG 11 members, I submitted content comments on drafts. I also gave editing advice: I provided substantive editing comments on early drafts and did copy edits of later drafts, including the current one.

In addition, I chair the IPLF committee that is helping people get the standard localized and adopted in countries around the world. You can find out who else from your country or language is already involved in this work, and inquire about joining the team, by contacting me at gael@iplfederation.org.

ME: With the world trending more toward virtual meetings, do you think the ISO process is likely to be any faster in future?

GS: Not really. ISO is a consensus-based organization, and it uses guidelines of about 45 days to allow everybody to be heard. No matter what meeting format, it takes time for everybody to provide comments. But the end result is that you then truly have an internationally agreed-upon standard.

ME: Can we use the standard once TC 37 has approved it?

GS: After approval, there will still be six months of internal ISO processes to go through. After that, it is up to the various countries to endorse or adopt the standard, and maybe adapt it to the countries’ language needs.

ME: Was there anything that surprised you in the standard?

GS: The International Institute for Information Design added valuable content based on empirical evidence. For instance, place any danger warnings ahead of instructions, and group similar subjects together by using similar shapes and colours. It is very obvious when you read it, but I would not have articulated it.

ME: What is the biggest thing you’ve taken away from working on the project?

GS: This has been a genuinely international project. International collaboration to produce the standard was one thing, but I never expected the standard to be truly language neutral — it can be applied to any language.

For more information on implementation, see Gael’s article “Localizing the ISO Standard,” published in the PLAIN e-journal of October 2021.

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Previous post from Merel Elsinga: Editing Medical-Legal Reports: An Interview with Jahleen Turnbull-Sousa

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