Find the Positive
When I develop experiential based learning programs, I am careful to set up role plays and demonstrations that show the learners how to manage a situation correctly. That way, when they are in a similar situation, they remember and model the correct behavior.
Similarly, in plain language writing, we are careful to avoid negative words and grammar. Readers (me included) will often skim the negative and look for what they can do. And a double negative statement is just confusing! Double negatives also take longer to understand, especially for readers with limited English or lower reading literacy. How much longer does it take to figure out what your friend wants to do when she says, “We can’t not do this!” versus “We have to do this!”
Following are some examples taken from Plain Language Wizardry by ©Cheryl Stephens, one of Canada’s foremost experts in Plain Language Writing:
Change: We decided not to hold staff meetings in the afternoon.
To: We decided to hold staff meetings in the morning
Change: The importance of high fiber intake is not to be underestimated.
To: It is important to eat food with lots of fiber. Or: Foods with lots of fiber are good.
Change: This policy shall not be valid unless countersigned by our authorized representative.
To: This policy becomes valid when signed by our authorized representative.
It’s easier to understand the point of the sentence when we shift from negative to positive writing.
As writers, particularly those writing for large bureaucracies, we can become caught in a pattern of writing that highlights the negative. The positives may not even be stated. This lack of clarity can lead to misunderstandings and issues for our readers.
We can all challenge ourselves to phrase ideas positively – it helps our audiences and, it helps us too.