Russell Willerton

Russell Willerton

Associate Professor
Boise State University

My book project, Plain Language and Ethical Action, examines and evaluates principles and practices of plain language that producers of technical content can apply to meet their audiences’ needs ethically. As legislators around the world pass more laws requiring plain language that audiences can understand easily, such as the United States’ Plain Writing Act of 2010, creators of technical content and the organizations employing them need to understand what plain language is and how it benefits audiences. While the practical and financial benefits of using plain language are well documented, this book is the first to focus on the ethical impacts of plain language: plain language gives citizens and consumers better access to their rights, and it combats what Karen Schriver and Sandra Fisher-Martins call the information apartheid of overly complicated documents that prevent citizens’ full participation in civic life.

Plain Language and Ethical Action is written for two groups: students and teachers in academic programs such as information design, technical and professional communication (TPC), and health communication; and those who produce plain-language technical content in a variety of fields (Web content writers, health literacy specialists, technical communicators, information designers, and content strategists, as well as their managers and supervisors). The book has three sections.

  • Section I begins with a synopsis of the plain-language movement and introduces the BUROC model (bureaucratic, urgent, unfamiliar, rights-oriented, and critical) of situations in which plain language can support ethical action. Next, a review of the literature on ethics in technical communication explains how Martin Buber’s view of dialogic ethics—already recognized in the TPC literature—helps us understand plain language. The section concludes with insights on the ethics of plain language from plain-language advocates around the world.
  • Section II offers five profiles of organizations using a dialogic approach to create plain language content for audiences facing challenging BUROC situations. The profiles identify insights on how and when to use plain language for a range of organizations and audiences.
  • Section III analyzes the profiles and provides principles for applying plain language in a variety of contexts. It also examines innovative applications of plain language and concludes with a framework for using plain language in technical content for ethical action.

Despite its increasing use around the world, plain language does not appear prominently in the literatures of rhetoric or TPC; perhaps this results from the technical communication’s traditional focus on user documentation in industry. In the 21st century, new jobs involve creating content in areas such as health literacy and government services where many advocate for plain language; state and federal governments are passing more laws requiring plain language. At the same time, those who teach current and future generations of content creators need to know what plain language is and how it impacts audiences. This timely book examines both why and how writers might create technical content in plain language. Its focus on ethics affirms our fields’ connections to humanistic ideals, and it gives practitioners another means to understand the impacts of their work.


Ethics, plain language, clear communication, action, rights, responsibilities

work in relation to symposium keywords

The keywords ethics and connections resonate with me most. The concept of ethics is deceptively simple. People know ethical behavior when they see it, and they know when they don’t see it. Ethics is at once categorical and contingent, absolute and relative. As such, ethics connects to health communication and to health communicators in many ways, just as it connects simultaneously to theory and praxis. I think health communicators typically want to behave ethically, but they often lack grounding in ethical theories. I want to understand how they can and should connect ethics to their work.

Participation Questions

  • How would you describe the relationship between medical rhetoric/health communication (however you see yourself) with other fields and sub-fields (e.g., rhetoric of science)?  For example, we struggled with what to name the symposium.  Some suggested medical rhetoric, but that doesn’t comfortably fit some from Communication nor from English Studies.  In other words, how do you align what may be a specific focus with broader disciplinary concerns and tensions?

I am happy that this symposium will bring so many people together. In a way, I think this symposium tells us not to worry too much about the labels we attach to our work. Perhaps we can move from “If you build it, they will come” to “If you publish it, people will find it.” Perhaps that is idealistic or naïve, but it might be true. I think the “tents” of rhetoric and composition and of communication studies are large and expansive. As long as we can stay connected to one tent or the other, we should be fine. If people want to change tents or create a space between them, I don’t see any problems.

  • What other keywords would you add to the list above (connections, dissemination, ethics, methods, and theory) and why? (no more than three additions)

I offer two: action and praxis. I understand the value of all six keywords, and I think they are appropriate. But health, healthcare, and medicine are all fields requiring action. For our work to add value, we have got to make connections between our scholarly work and the world beyond the ivory tower. Healthcare and medicine are clearly sites of change and upheaval in the US; that is likely the case in other places, too. Healthcare directly affects the lives of real people, and the work of people at this conference has the potential to help people through challenging, important decisions they’ll face in the years ahead. I think action helps us consider what people can do with our knowledge, and with how we can apply our research methods. I think praxis helps us make abstract ideas from ethics and theory more concrete.

  • What do you see as the primary distinctions between a “humanities” orientation to research and a “social sciences” orientation? what is at stake in these different orientations?

Fields in the humanities may tend to privilege artifacts: reading them, writing them, interpreting them, understanding them in their contexts. Fields in the social sciences may tend to privilege observations: lab experiments, ethnographic studies, case studies, surveys, and so on. (Broad, sweeping generalizations, I know. Trying to be succinct.) Perhaps the humanities approach gives greater value to the (often idiosyncratic) individuals who create artifacts, while the social-sciences approach gives greater focus on social forces and factors affecting people. Social scientists focus on applying social-science methods effectively to answer research questions appropriately; humanists focus on people who craft artifacts and who respond to those artifacts, and on the artifacts themselves. Which is gives a truer measure of life, art or science? the scientists’ lab or the writer’s desk?

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