“Revise and resubmit” are three words that fill academic writers with dread. My own PhD wasn’t ready when I submitted it first. Second time round, it was, because what was on the page more closely matched what was in my head. Two decades later, I remember how that process of reworking feels. Now, editing and translating, I reshape other people’s academic texts for a living. Revising your own is always harder.

This book helps. Reading Pamela Haag’s Revise: The Scholar-Writer’s Essential Guide to Tweaking, Editing, and Perfecting your Manuscript (Yale UP 2021), I found myself crowing in delighted recognition. Like mine, her mantra is “who is doing what to whom?” If a passage is in the passive, it might not be clear in the reader’s mind – or even the writer’s head. A developmental editor like Haag can help you restructure. But you can do a lot to your manuscript yourself by asking the same questions.

You can use this book to turn the vague writing feedback into concrete action. What does it actually mean to “smooth over” or “tighten up” a text for better “flow”? Turn lists into linked text, take out subheadings, shorten chapter titles (stop before that colon!), or cut examples and block quotes. Check your verb, subject, and object are clear. Humans do things to other people or things. Who or what are they? “Policymakers” or “citizens” are still large categories that you need to define. You can make a watchlist of words you overuse (“interesting” and “clearly” are on mine).

Moving through the text is another huge issue. Ideally, “your manuscript’s inner logic makes its explicit articulation unnecessary.” Haag spends a lot of time on making segues, or transitions, effective. She gets her red pen out for “traffic direction” or “hand-holding” (“As I said in section 1, I will next…”) and “emcee words” (“its devastating impact shocked us”). She advises against restating your argument too often and for techniques more used in narrative. Tell the reader what they need to know, in the order they need it. Right down to the sentence level.

Haag makes all this easier by defining terms. She is precise – do you need rhetorical questions? No. And figurative – is your manuscript a “sleek jaguar with no bones”? If it sounds good but has no skeleton to hold it together, you need to choose one, based on your main point. Then you can “walk down the vertebra” of the book to check they’re in place. “Tofu syndrome” means you’re writing like your sources, as tofu absorbs any flavour. I see this often in writing about the European Union, in fluent EU-speak. Like “asparagus” you can feel the point where a section should snap off so you don’t have to eat the long woody stalk. Scare quotes are an “eye roll” on the page, so it is more effective to tell us what is wrong with “that term.”

Blocks in your writing might have underlying “psycho-editorial” causes, which Haag lays out. If claims don’t sound confident you may not be feeling confident. You might use jargon to avoid making your own argument, or put conclusions first because you’re tired. Did you only put that long literature review in because someone else said you had to? If you know why, you can do something about it. “Force yourself to put the theory into your own words.”

Haag illustrates every point with real text she’s revised, and ends with a comprehensive checklist. Have you read your text aloud, checked that figurative language obeys the laws of nature (begone, actors mapping interwoven frameworks!), and made your antecedents clear (shown what “it” is)?

A colleague recommended Revise to me. Now I am recommending it to you. In the days after reading it, I found myself remembering Haag’s prompts, as if she was revising my writing alongside me. I made better decisions. It was easier to untangle those knotty sentences. Next time I have a big, shapeless text that needs trimming, I will start from her checklist.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

101 ways to write

Sometimes imposing restrictions on your writing can be freeing. Translators know about this. We turn other people’s words into new ones in a different language that doesn’t work the same way. To quote Ginger Rogers, we do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards, in heels.

If you want to ginger up your writing, get your hands on this book. But since 101 tapaa tappaa aviomies is in Finnish, I’ll focus here on the contents and how you might like to use them.

Laura Lindstedt and Sinikka Vuola take a violent story and retell it, 101 ways. It’s not long, so here’s my 20-word tweet-length version:

Anja, after years of abuse by her husband, kills him. The court concludes she’s served her sentence already. She’s free.

You could take that, and turn it into a haiku, a blurb, or an academic abstract. You’d be getting the idea. But what if you turned it into a libretto, a list of pharmacy prescriptions, or retold it from the point of view of the gun? It could be far more interesting to read.

What if you didn’t use the letter “e” at all, or replaced all the nouns with the ones three lines below them in the dictionary? Some people will enjoy these experiments with form more than others. You could try a tanka, limerick, or sonnet. I particularly enjoyed the traditional Finnish forms that echoed the Kantaletar.

What if Fibonacci, Kafka, or Getrude Stein got their teeth into it? Can you make your writing count/sound like theirs? Often, we have to write within some formal constraints – those abstracts and tweets – but applying all kinds of others is delightful.

Yes, some seem daft. But I did squeal with delight on several pages. It’s not a little up itself, sometimes. But grand old wordsmiths say, “if you’re stuck, try changing the person or tense.” What if you changed a lot more, playing with your text to see where it takes you?

Three new words for forms of writing I learned from this book were:

  1. Rapukäännös = crabwise turn = retroversio. In this context, telling the story backwards.
  2. Flarf = deliberately “bad” poetry made by scavenging odd search terms and bits of text online.
  3. Tautogram = a text where all the words start with the same letter.

Writing backwards in heels like that for a bit could make it easier for you to write forwards, barefoot. When your tired text hits snooze again, give it an extra blanket, a dreamcatcher – or a triple espresso. And see what happens.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

Spring into Writing 2022: join us on retreat!

The days are getting longer. The clocks will soon change. Our Wednesday writing group finds the sun rising earlier means we’re waking up earlier. Does that give us more time to write?

Finally being back on campus or in the office has been brilliant for meeting in person again. But that means more time getting from A to B. A good thing, but the working day can feel longer.

If you’re struggling to fit it all in, carve out some writing time with us. Put your out-of-office on, get back into some good writing habits to start your summer project – and finish in time to take a proper holiday!

We’ve retreats to suit everyone: in person and online, in English and Finnish bilingual, and Finnish only, in April, May, and June. Come and try it for a day, or book yourself in for all five…

Online in April

Join us in April for two online retreat days, on Thursday 21 and Friday 22 (book here). While these are on Zoom, I’m taking the opportunity to test a new potential venue in Helsinki, Valo Work. So let me know if you want to meet up there.

On an island in May

In May, two days in person on Thursday 5 and Friday 6 (sign up here). After our successful retreat in February, we are returning to Säynätsalo Town Hall. This unique Alvar Aalto building is the perfect fit for us, quiet, spacious, and creative. The island is a bus ride from Jyväskylä city centre, in a beautiful setting on Päijänne, the second-biggest lake in Finland. Last time we saw the Northern Lights and tramped through the snow – this time, spring will be in the air! Book accommodation here now, as spaces are limited.

Suomeksi kesäkuussa

Our fourth online retreat in Finnish with Tohtoriverkosto is on Friday 17 June. Sign up here, it’s free to the PhD network members so do join if you haven’t yet. This is the week before midsummer, when Finns disappear into the forests and onto the lakes. But we will keep writing on Wednesdays for some of that time. Wednesday morning online sessions are free and open to every writer who has been on a retreat.


Every retreat has a free space for a student or person on a low income. Thanks again to the individuals and university departments who have sponsored this before. Email me for the scholarship code, or if you want to sponsor a scholar. Looking forward to writing with you!

Writers in community

One of the best things about writing together is how much you can learn from others. Here are some tips from writers on recent retreats:

1. Try writing the first sentence of each paragraph – fill in the detail later

2. Put your phone behind your computer screen out of sight – or turn it off!

3. Stick to one way of writing for one hour: brainstorming, free writing, revising…

4. If killing your darlings feels too brutal, send them to kindergarten/boarding school. (Instead of deleting text, move it to a separate document)

5. Change position – move to a different chair, sit then stand

6. To counteract hunching, lie on a cushion or foam roller so your chest is out

7. Measure yourself – how many words did you write in the last hour? Use that figure to schedule writing the whole piece

8. Let your text rest so it feels new when you come back to it

9. When you revise, try doing it in a different format, font, programme, or place

10. End with something physical, offline – walk, swim, meet to eat or for coffee

Every retreat, I’m amazed at how much we learn from each other, how much we get done, and how much fun we have. Come and write with us.

Thank you to Zama Ferin for her gorgeous photos from our February retreat in Säynätsalo.

Rhetoric for Writers

Facilitating writing retreats is a bit like being a yoga teacher. I was remembered this at my last retreat. At the end of our first day, one participant said “I feel tired, but in a good way, like after a great yoga class.” Which is all you could hope for. But Like yoga teachers, writing retreat facilitators need energy from someone more experienced. You need to keep learning.

Luckily, I was half way through Rowena Murray’s rhetoric course.

Rhetoric is a triangle

What is rhetoric? It is “the art of making the best possible case” (Fahnestock, 2011: 158), or writing with “a sense of audience and purpose” (Flower & Hayes, 1980: 21–32). Rhetoric links all three sides of a triangle: writer, audience, and purpose. When the triangle aligns, the audience sees your point – whether they agree or not!

On this two-day course, we tested rhetorical techniques and used them to make a case in writing:

  • Audience analysis
  • Rhetorical modes of exposition and argument
  • Structuring and writing styles

As we started, I remembered what my A level history teacher used to write on the side of my essays: “Why are you telling me this?”

Modes of exposition

On day one, we examined all seven rhetorical modes of exposition:

  1. Description
  2. Narration
  3. Process
  4. Comparison & contrast
  5. Analysis
  6. Classification
  7. Definition

Once we had the theory, we got straight into drafting texts to use in practice. We had questions to keep us on track, and feedback criteria to see if we hit that target. I realised, yet again, that I can happily write a thousand words in less than an hour – talking to my audience. But then I need to restructure to boil it down to my main point. I have to remember the purpose side of that triangle.

Rowena Murray shows you all these modes of exposition in the Journal of Academic Development and Education, in her editorial on Snack and Binge Writing. I tried using them all here – but I didn’t use them in order, or label them. Can you spot all seven? Would a different order have worked better?

Modes of argument

On day two of the course, we tested the rhetorical modes of argument:

  1. Evaluation
  2. Causal analysis
  3. Refutation
  4. Proposal

Even after one day, I noticed a big change in how I used my writing time. The second time we had an hour to practice one mode, I wrote 500 words instead of a thousand. But it was much better structured. I was much more focused on proving my point.

Some modes of argument and writing styles felt like old friends but on the course, I thought about them in a new way. For instance:

When you write a proposal, it should have an hourglass shape, that begins with the issue up for debate, definitions, and causes.

The proposal statement is the middle

The proposal ends with the supporting arguments and solutions. Not many people use hourglasses these days, but you might still use an egg-timer (for snack writing), which is the same shape. You could look at how George Herbert does it in his beloved poem and call this a proposal with wings.

Structuring your argument

My key takeaway from this course was: spend more time planning than writing. Were you taught to spend the first 10 minutes planning your answer to an exam question, and use the rest of the hour to write it? I was. But what if you turned that on its head? Liane Reif-Lehrer suggests you spend 60% of your writing time outlining, 10% turning it into prose, and 30% revising. Or even 90% planning, so you need very little time to write and revise.

You can plan an article down to 100-word blocks, by dividing it into sections, subsections, and sub-subsections. Then you know exactly how much space you have for every stage in your argument. Which is especially useful if you are co-authoring. Once you have your outline, you only have to write a hundred words at a time. That should be easy to fit in – with an egg-timer, an hourglass, or wings – however busy you are.

Rhetoric on writing retreat

Rowena’s course moved the theory of rhetoric into writing practices that you can remember and use. I found it useful to adapt the rhetorical modes to writing retreat contexts. You, the writer, can focus before you start by filling the other two sides of the rhetoric triangle:

For purpose, one easy technique is to think of a verb. What am I doing in this section or session? Is my aim to argue, claim, analyse, confirm, dispute, reveal?

For audience, build up a mini reader avatar using wh-questions. Who is going to read this? When? What do they know about my topic? Where will they agree – and disagree? Why? How can I make them see it in a new way?

And the key, as ever, is to set specific goals. How long have you got? In that time, how many words can you write?

Zooming ahead

We did this over Zoom, using breakout rooms to share our practice texts. We met on two successive Tuesdays from ten till two. Four hours at a stretch online sounds like a lot, but we moved between big group and small groups, listening and talking, reading and writing. With proper breaks. So the time flew past, but we covered a huge amount. Just like on a writing retreat.

Of course, in person we could have had more social time and focus. But online was more accessible. Besides me in Finland, writers came from all over the UK, at all stages of their academic careers. Some even attended while in covid isolation. Sharing your writing on-screen is scary, but in a breakout room with two or three others, it is doable. It helps. A lot.

Take this course!

Rowena Murray’s retreats and training always bring you back to the writing. Even though this was a taught course, I got a lot written. I restarted an article that I’d left to sit, because I was stuck on the analysis. Now I know how to tackle it. And I learned some new criteria to focus my writing on my audience and purpose.

Have I convinced you to take the course yourself? You tell me!

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

When to stop writing

Inspirational unlock-your-inner-novelist books, beware! Here’s a Nobelist to tell you like it is.

To be fair to Szymborska, she’s not a grand old man of literature who looks down her nose. And when she was writing the letters published in this book, she did mention the Nobel, but not because she’d won it yet. Because few people win it. And because she’s not a man, she was writing those letters in the plural, as “we, the editors of this literary journal.” If she had written “I” in Polish, readers would have known it was her: the only woman on the editorial board.

She was writing for censored publication. This was before the underground press took off, between the death of Stalin and martial law (1953–1981). As ever, Szymborska used the tiny space available to say a vast amount. Aspiring authors asked Literary Life whether their writing was any good. The answers are in How to Start Writing (and When to Stop), published in 2021 by New Directions.

Szymborska didn’t waste the tiny space available on niceties. While many of her responses made me laugh, she was never cruel: “‘My boyfriend says I am too pretty to be a good poet. What do you think of the poems I sent?’ We think you must be really pretty.”

Yet these letters should not drag you into a Slough of Despond about how dreadful your own writing is. Szymborska asks her readers difficult questions that could help them move up and out. She is honest. Sometimes you should keep writing those poems, but only for your beloved or your desk drawer. Sometimes you should stick to letters and diaries because what you’ve got just is not a Great Novel.

She returns to the basics: Are you reading? Are you revising? (Even Chekov did seven revisions, she writes, and Mann did at least five.) How does it sound out loud? (“No poet since the dawn of time has ever counted syllables on his fingers. A poet is born with an ear. He’s got to start somewhere.”) Is the story even possible? (See her advice to the poet Marcus below.)

Her letters reveal the editor’s weariness with the same old themes and rhymes. Szymborska refuses to read any more poems about springtime. When something fresher comes along, she’s delighted, but stays critical. And she writes by the same rigorous standards. In the introduction, Clare Cavanagh describes translating a volume of Szymborska’s poems. All the translators were told to delete one, without reading it, and translate the new version. Nine-tenths of what Szymborska wrote went in the bin.

In the interview at the end of the book, Szymborska says herself that “the didactic value is minimal. It’s mainly entertainment.” I felt that when I was reading, but afterwards, those witty darts had started working their way into my mind. Not everyone has someone to tell them when to stop writing because it is not working. Even if you have a critical reader, they might not prod you in the right direction. Szymborska could.

Clare Cavanagh’s translation is terrific. This is the first time I’ve read Szymborska in English, because I missed Teresa Walas’ Polish edition (Poczta literacka czyli jak zostać (lub nie zostać) pisarzem). It came out in 2000, four years after Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her voice shines through this English edition of the book. Her letters from the editor are a sharp and surprising as her poems.

Writing in a Winter Wonderland 2022

In January 2020, we wrote together in a winter wonderland and it was wonderful. At the Writers’ House in Jyväskylä, the snow started falling just as we finished writing. I knew we’d do it again soon…

Two years on, we have come to value our time together in person even more. It is precious, when we have had to do without it for so long. But we’ve still found ways to write, and online, too, the collective energy makes it work.

Writing together keeps your work on track and from it, friendships grow. I hope it can do the same for you. Why not give it a try?

Join us in February if you need to get something written and want good company for it. Come for one day, or five!

Our online retreat on Friday 18 February (in Finnish) is free to Tohtoriverkosto members. The deeper into academia you go, the less easy it is to prioritise your writing, as Hanna Tervanotko and Helen Dixon explain. Join the Finnish network for PhDs and PhD candidates to make it easier. This will be our third retreat.

Before that, we are writing together online on Thursday 3 and 4 February. Like all my other retreats, this will be in English and Finnish – people who come speak and write in other languages too. We will start a bit later to include people further west in Europe.

And on Thursday 10 and Friday 11 February, we will meet in person in a unique setting, Alvar Aalto’s Town Hall in Säynätsalo. Some of you will know I have been living there short-term myself – now you can too, for a day or two. The island is a short bus ride from Jyväskylä city centre, but in the middle of Päijänne, Finland’s second biggest lake. In February the ice should be perfect for skiing, skating, or snowshoeing. Aalto Bakery is right next door, and there’s a lovely lakeside eatery nearby. If walking is more your thing, you can rest and refuel at Table en Bois on the next island. Come on Wednesday night to start right with a sauna. Or stay on for the weekend to relax afterwards. Even if you’re with us for one day, you’ll have room for those conversations that work so much better in person.

Whichever you choose, we will have time, space and community to write together.

Hope you can join us. Book here.

Memory Speaks

Writing in your own language is not as easy as you might think. What if you have more than one language? What if your first language is so deeply buried within you, you have real trouble digging it out? What does that do to your brain, your heart, and the society you live in?

In Memory Speaks Julie Sedivy addresses all these questions. Her reflection on losing and reclaiming language and self is searing. I pre-ordered it as an e-book from Harvard University Press as soon as I heard about it, and devoured it in a couple of days.

Sedivy came to Canada from Czechoslovakia, as it was then, as a young child. She identifies with Nabokov’s experience of “language being yoked to memory.” Although he wrote in English (his “stepmother tongue”), his memoir had to be in Russian, the language of his childhood.

Sedivy has a linguist’s passion for endangered languages, not least to defend the indigenous ones in the land of her new home. She weaves her academic expertise into her personal story.

And she can write. Her book brims with vivid metaphors.

“Languages can co-exist, but they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention. Like a household that welcomes a new child, a mind can’t introduce a new language without having some impact on the languages already living there.” The effect of this is a lot more nuanced than the newspaper headlines would have us believe. I could recognise myself in Sedivy’s descriptions of compartmentalising (healthcare happens in the language of the state you live in, Christmas cooking in the language of your maternal grandmother). I can understand how the desire to reconcile complex differences comes from having your brain firing on all cylinders in several linguistic directions.

“All speakers of minority languages, whether they realize it or not, carry within themselves a tally of their language’s value, a sense of the price they would be willing to pay to keep it.” This is a political issue. My job is to translate into English and edit in English for academics, so they can get published in the most valued language of the moment, but I live in a small multilingual country that’s been independent for just over a century. So I am hyperaware of the politics of language. Sedivy addresses this deftly, looking at the impact of policy, language nests, and migration on how languages thrive (or not).

“A grammar usually describes a language as if it were an object that can be dissociated from its speakers, like an image of a dress laid out on a bed ready for someone to put on. But native speakers also know what their language looks like when it’s worn—how the language drapes and flows…” Sedivy lost much of her Czech once she and her siblings switched to English at school, but relearned it by spending time there once she could, as an adult in the 1990s. Researchers have found that babies tune in to the sounds of the language around them even in the womb. Her preschool Czech did return when she returned there.

“Children learn language the way they learn to ride a bike—without the benefit of diagrams about muscle physiology or the physics of motion, but relying on raw intuition and repeated trial and error.” So (re)learning a heritage language is very different from being an adult student who is new to it. Classes should reflect this. Even language nests are not enough – the more people around you speaking the language, the stronger it grows. And language is a question of biodiversity as real as it is in the plant and animal world. It takes interventions to preserve that diversity.

“Many bilingual people think of language as a portal into alternative ways of being.” What this means for you personally, or for all of us as writers, is that we need to write in our other languages. Not just in English. Different kinds of writing. One person like this said:

“I am like a Swiss army knife. Multiple tools, and you can pretty much deal with anything, if I need a screwdriver, it’s in there. So if I need to be American, I’m in there.”

You choose whether you want to write academically or creatively in a language other than English. It is important for the language itself that you do. And it might make you a better academic, more creative. It might make your English, and your voice in the other languages, more interesting. You might make new connections and see things that, monolingually, you wouldn’t. Sedivy says it best:

“I’m drawn, like a moth flinging its body against a light bulb, to in-between spaces and intersections, to hyphenations, to situations in which there will always be two sides. This is, for me, where all the heat and light can be found.”

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

King On Writing

I resisted reading King’s On Writing for a while. A friend doing a clearout passed it on. A colleague who’s committed to writing well reviewed it. And then my brother gave it to me as a late birthday present. “It’s good,” he said.

So I read it, in a day.

Here are ten things from the book that are worth repeating:

1. If you write bestsellers, “no one ever asks about the language” (Amy Tan) – but you must be doing something right.

I’ve not read any of King’s fiction; horror isn’t my thing. But I share his love of a good story, and after reading his “memoir of the craft,” I know he knows how to tell one. He begins with his own story, the one around the ones he writes. And he soon had me hooked.

2. Writing means rewriting – “to write is human, to edit is divine.”

It is always nice when writers appreciate copyeditors and King does. He recalls learning from the sports reporter who handed back his first copy and “only took out the bad parts, most of it is pretty good…”

King stresses that “when you rewrite, you are taking out everything that is not the story.” Or, in the words of my A-level history teacher in the margins of my essays, “why are you telling me this?”

3. If you don’t take your writing seriously, who will?

“You must not come lightly to the blank page.” If you want to do a good job, you need to have your toolbox in order and the knowledge to use everything in it. This includes finding out enough about the basics of grammar and style, and taking time to correct mistakes. King doesn’t have time for complex plot mapping or gimmicky tricks. His gut feeling is that writing workshops and courses distract from the core business of getting your words on the page. He wants you to get on with it.

4.“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

King is far from the first to say this, but reading is essential to writing. It was easy to identify with his own description of always reading, on the treadmill, on transport, everywhere. Seeing how others do it will help you do it. But then you do have to put the hours in.

5. Stick to a system.

2k per day, every day, in the mornings until it’s done, is King’s system. Alone and without distraction, behind a “door you are willing to shut.” Everyone will have their own routine, and not everyone is a morning person. Like sleep, however, regular habits help create the space to dream things up, and to write them down.

6. The story comes first: “stories are found things, like fossils in the ground.”

Like translation, there are a thousand and one metaphors for writing. This is King’s. The story is there, buried, waiting to be unearthed with care, without shattering them. I warmed to his explanation that he doesn’t know what will happen next either: if it’s too obvious to him, why would a reader care? His drive to write more is the desire to find out. The “fossil” could be a situation — “what if…?” Finish that sentence and you’ve started your story.

7. Create critical distance

At this point, King lays down the law. Don’t let anyone at all see your first draft till it’s done. And then only show one person – but don’t let them talk to you about it till you are ready. At best, let it sit for at least six weeks, start the next thing, move on. And reread in one sitting if possible. While rereading, King says, “I’m looking for what I meant” – the big themes. Then a handful of friends get to look at it, and the editing is in full swing. Five friends might have six opinions. So to decide who is right, consider what your ideal reader would think.

8. Cut, cut, cut: 2nd draft = 1st draft -10%

I warmed to this formula too, as everything I edit comes out shorter. You need to do your research, to have a back story in mind, but don’t put too much of that detail in. King shows how he does this with before and after versions of a long extract from one of his own drafts. Again, the story drives him. “As a reader, I’m a lot more interested in what’s going to happen than what already did.”

9. You can help readers find you.

King was very successful very quickly but he quoted an author who had to work harder to find an agent. “You can’t make them like your story, but you can at least make it easy for them to try to like it.” This author had their pick of agents from one carefully worded letter of enquiry. You can show what you’ve achieved but be approachable.

10. Remember why you’re doing it.

“Writing is about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

King is honest about the times in his life when he was not living to write, but writing to live. Do you recognise this feeling? I do. I won’t rush out and read Carrie (though that’s the one I’d go for, after hearing about the characters that inspired her). But I will keep his top ten pinned up somewhere. And if you’ve also been meaning to read On Writing, go for it. My brother was right: it’s good!

How easy is your language?

Imagine that…

everywhere in Europe, it is easy to find information

it doesn’t matter how well you can read

writers make their message easy for everyone to understand.

The Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe imagines just that. It shows what works and what still needs doing to make language easy for everyone. Camilla Lindholm (University of Tampere) and Ulla Vanhatalo (University of Helsinki) edited it, and Alice Lehtinen (another fantastic Finn) is the copy editor. I was delighted when Frank & Timme sent me a review copy. (It’s volume 8 in their series on easy, plain, and accessible language.) So I was feeling favourable towards this tome before I even opened it.

At 658 pages, this is not for the faint-hearted. To read it, I had to break it down. So I started with my working languages. I’ve trained in Plain English (with the CIEP) and Polish (a workshop with Tomasz Piekot and the ITI Polish Network). I’m doing a course on accessible Finnish (at the University of Tampere). I want to learn more about how Germans use easy language to inform people about elections. And I know how useful easy language can be. Learning Finnish in Finland, some of the first books I read were easy reads. I started consuming easy news (Selkouutiset) long before I could cope with the “real thing.”

Except easy is the “real thing.” It is not dumbed down. It is for all sorts of people who find reading difficult. This includes language learners,  people with learning difficulties, and older or ill people. Easy language is for adults. I would suggest that if plain language is at about CEFR level B1, easy language is at level A1 to A2. But each country has a different classification system. One of the problems with this is that what is easy for one person is difficult for another.

The variety in this book is startling. “Europe” here doesn’t only mean the EU. After a few chapters, if you know a bit about a country, you can guess about how they handle easy language. Ex-empires Russia and the UK have made government communication clearer. Multilingual Switzerland has a patchwork of initiatives that don’t integrate. The Germans are big on theoretical research, but less good on user-led practice.

But the stereotypes don’t hold. Austria has produced some excellent practical resources in German. Bilingual Finland has learned from Sweden to join forces to promote easy language. Countries that take pride in their literary tradition can relax the rules. Easy Spanish guidelines recommend ditching the subjunctive. You can write literature in easy language – it works best if readers help you do it.

This book is worth it for the bibliographies alone. Each chapter includes a list of the latest theoretical literature and practical guidelines. This offers a great way in to easy writing in a particular language. Dipping into countries you do not know much about can give you ideas about what could work in your country.

The authors show that context matters. Socioeconomic and postcolonial factors influence how people learn to read. Reading and writing well mean different things in different languages. If you find reading difficult, you might find accessing the internet difficult too.

Yet there are some surprising omissions. No chapter on France – is easy language not used there? I’d like to know more. The editors give a brilliant overview in the introduction. But they did not collate recommendations from across the continent in a conclusion. In such a big book, was there no space?

Important questions for future research and practice come up in different chapters. Does easy language create an “information ghetto” or do easy reads meet real needs? Is giving people access to audio-visual information in apps or online more important?  Do readers with learning difficulties and reading difficulties need  different texts? Who should  make the rules for easy language? Researchers, translators, teachers, social workers… or service users and readers? How can countries honour international commitments to accessibility in practice?

On the principle of “nothing about us, without us,” some authors recommend writing abstracts on the topic in easy language. So I did that for this book here:

The Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe is a big book.

50 writers wrote it.

They say that easy language for everyone.

It is easy to read and understand.

It started 50 years ago in Sweden.

Now people use it in many countries.

This book has chapters about 21 countries.

It answers 5 questions about each country:

1. What is the language like?

2. Are there rules about easy language?

3. Who uses easy language?

4. Can people learn about easy language?

5. How can we make language easier for everyone?

If you want answers to these questions, (get your library to) buy the Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe. It will inspire you to make language easier for more people, wherever you are.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

How plain is your English?

Clear writing has clear results. And I love helping writers say exactly what they mean so readers can understand. But I was sure I could write better myself. Then I started mentoring someone who specialized in plain English and I wanted to learn more.

If you’re interested in it, too, do the CIEP Plain English for Editors course. It costs about £200 (less for CIEP members) and takes about 30 hours depending on what you know already. It’s worth it for the reading list alone. I learned a lot in a very short time:

Did you know that technology can help make your English plainer? You can customize Word grammar checks, use macros, and make PerfectIt style sheets. I also tried some software. StyleWriter highlights words that “bog” a text down and “pep” a text up, making it harder or easier to read. Online, you can use the Hemingway Editor for free. But all these tools have their limits.

You can calculate how plain a document is by measuring it in different ways:

  • The Flesch Reading Ease score should be about 65/100 for plain English.
  • The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level should not be higher than 9 (a reading age of 15) for plain English. In the UK, the average reading age is 13.
  • Both these measures count word length and sentence length. A plain English sentence should be shorter than 20 words.

But long words and sentences are only one problem. Sometimes, a short statement can be complex, e.g. “I think, therefore I am.” Sometimes, you need to use more difficult language, but you can explain what you mean.

You can use some excellent online guides to help you write in plain English:

But you won’t absorb everything by visiting the websites. On the course, you do exercises and can talk to your tutor or other students. The best way to write in plain English is to try it and see what real readers think. They will tell you whether they understand or not.

It’s most important to plan before you start writing. Wh-questions are a clear, easy way to organize a text – who is doing what, where, when, and why?

The CIEP Plain English course taught me 10 things:

1.        Plain English is flexible

You just need to ask: “what do I want to say?” and “who am I writing for?”

2.        Plain English is interesting

You can vary it. Complicated, official language can be much more boring!

3.        Plain English is for sharing complex ideas

What you say is not simple, but the way you say it is clear.

4.        Plain English is for formal writing

A clear message sounds strong. Trying to sound clever might not work.

5.        Plain English is for taking readers seriously

How often do people say “that’s too easy to read”?

6.        Plain English is for university

Researchers can reach more people if they explain their ideas well.

7.        Plain English is for law

People find it easier to keep and enforce clear laws.

8.        Plain English is useful for reaching readers

You can use it give many people large amounts of information briefly.

9.        Plain English is hard work

You need to check words and sentence length, plan, and test.

10.      Plain English is faster and cheaper

It takes time, but it can save time – and money. If your text is clear, you don’t need to explain it.

I tried to write this in plain English, using all the tools and links I learned about. Can you see where I could have made it plainer?

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit