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Even everyday objects need clear writing

May 5, 2009

When I was in Seattle for the annual WritersUA Conference, I found a local drug store where I could stock up on supplies such as Diet Coke and fruit (mini-bar and room service prices are NOT an option!).

On the drug store bags were these two labels, both of which are NOT clear and could use a technical writer’s help.

Let’s look at the first one:

Bag label 1

Bag label 1

There are just so many confusing elements in this apparently simple 15-word (77 red character) sentence:

  • “This product”: Which product? The bag? The items in the bag? The subject of the sentence is not clear.
  • “is targeted to be DEGRADABLE”: Targeted to be degradable? What on earth does that mean? Does it mean it will degrade or it won’t, or it might? The logo to the left indicates that the product (I’ll assume ‘the product’ is the bag) is 100% degradable, but the ‘is targeted to be’ bit is very confusing. I’m not sure if degradable has to be in all caps either.
  • “when discarded in landfill”: Not a lot wrong with this phrase, though using plain English words may be clearer. However, perhaps the bag ONLY degrades in landfill? What if you dispose of it some other way, like burying it in your backyard? Will it degrade then? Or is there something special about discarding in landfill that makes this product degrade, but only under those circumstances? Ah, it’s a mystery!
  • “within 12 to 24 months.”: Nothing too bad about this phrase — except its position in the sentence. By placing it after the ‘when discarded in landfill’ phrase it could be interpreted that you have to discard this bag within 12 to 24 months into landfill otherwise it will degrade! I think it’s meant to mean that once the bag is in the landfill facility, it will degrade within 12 to 24 months. But that’s not what it says. So there could be some confusion that the bag might disintegrate in your hands after 12 months if you don’t discard it in landfill by then. Silly, but it’s a possible interpretation, especially for those for whom English is a second or third language.

So, how could a technical writer or technical communicator make this sentence clear and concise? My first attempts would be something like these:

  • This bag degrades within 12 to 24 months after disposal into landfill. (12 words; 59 red characters)
  • Dispose of this bag into landfill where it will degrade within 12 to 24 months. (15 words; 65 red characters)
  • Discard this bag into landfill — it will degrade within 1 to 2 years. (13 words; 57 words)

These three rewrites took me less than 5 minutes — and I’m sure they could be better with more time. Let’s assume I’m paid 60 jellybeans [substitute your local currency unit here] an hour — that means that it just cost the business owner 5 jellybeans for a more readable and understandable label. Cheap. Even if took me 15 minutes, that’s still a very cheap cost, considering how many hundreds of thousands of these bags would’ve been printed in a single print run and the cost of the red ink for the extra characters (my suggestions save between 12 and 20 printed characters PER BAG).

Now let’s look at the second part of this label (which contains 11 words [53 red characters]):

Bag label 2

Bag label 2

  • “This product”: See above — I’ll assume the product is the bag.
  • “can be recycled”: There’s an option? What if you choose not to recycle it? This phrase also uses passive voice, whereas active voice is preferred as it speaks more directly to the reader.
  • “prior to”: What’s wrong with ‘before’?
  • “the onset of degradation”: Again, plainer terms like ‘start’, ‘begin’ are more readable and understandable.

In 2 minutes I reworded this sentence in these ways:

  • You can recycle this bag before it starts to degrade. (11 words, 45 characters)
  • Recycle this bag until it starts to degrade. (9 words, 38 characters)

Again, there are big savings in red ink by using a simpler statement — some 8 to 15 characters PER BAG.

But the biggest benefit are labels that are easier for everyone to understand — even those with limited English language skills.

Just for fun, I ran Word’s Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level checks over each of these sentences — the originals and my attempts at simplifying them without losing meaning. I am skeptical of Word’s readability statistics (a blog post for another day), but for what it’s worth, here are the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level results (the figures are the school Grade you need to have achieved in the US education system to be able to read and understand the sentence):

  • ORIGINAL: This product is targeted to be DEGRADABLE when discarded in landfill within 12 to 24 months. (Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 11.3)
  • This bag degrades within 12 to 24 months after disposal into landfill. (9.7)
  • Dispose of this bag into landfill where it will degrade within 12 to 24 months. (7.5)
  • Discard this bag into landfill — it will degrade within 1 to 2 years. (5.8)
  • ORIGINAL: This product can be recycled prior to the onset of degradation. (9)
  • You can recycle this bag before it starts to degrade. (4.8)
  • Recycle this bag until it starts to degrade. (5.2)

My attempts in all cases reduced the Grade level required to read and understand the sentence by between 1.6 and a stunning 4.2 grade levels!

And all that improved readability cost less than an hour of a technical writer’s time, and probably significantly reduced the cost of the red ink required to print the labels. The end result would be labels that the majority of the population can understand, not just those who’ve achieved Grade 9 or higher. That has to be better for everyone.

Update June 2012: I had used this bag to store something and when I went to grab it from the drawer it was in, it just disintegrated into tiny little pieces! So it definitely degraded.

2 comments

  1. How about “If not recycled, this bag will degrade within two years.” Ten words total. If being in a landfill is required for degradation, just add “in a landfill”. That would be 13 words for both statements. Whew, hard work. I was sweating it there.


  2. […] Even everyday objects need clear writing […]



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