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Action Item: 3.3 Proposal (Writing Style)

From: Kynn Bartlett <kynn-edapta@idyllmtn.com>
Date: Mon, 12 Mar 2001 15:51:41 +0100
Message-Id: <a05010405b6d29290d33d@[212.157.162.205]>
To: w3c-wai-gl@w3.org
Here's the last of my three action items (apart from one from the
server-side techniques list) -- which was originally to "deconstruct"
the "clear, simple writing" checkpoint.  The problem is that I ended
up concluding that we don't want to have any sort of general rule
about this, and so my proposal is:  Eliminate the checkpoint.

Read on for more:

Action Item:  Deconstruct 3.3

Currently:

3.3  Write clearly and simply.
      This checkpoint addresses the need to facilitate comprehension 
of the content
      by all readers, especially those with cognitive disabilities. It 
should not
      be interpreted as discouraging the expression of complex or 
technical ideas.
      However, authors should strive for clarity and simplicity in 
their writing.

Okay, let's look at what this checkpoint is trying to say.

* You shouldn't write in an overly obfuscated manner, if at all possible.

* This will have benefits for people who have lower reading levels, for
   whatever reason (cognitive disabilities, lack of education, lack of
   language skills, youth, etc.)

* This also has benefits for translation purposes; it's easier to translate
   a straightforward writing style than an idiosyncratic style.

* The checkpoint as written explicitly recognize that there are "exceptions"
   for technical writing.

The problems with this checkpoint:

* It's uncheckable since it sets no specific metrics to know if you have
   adequately met the checkpoint's requirements.

* No sense is given of the _audience_ of the content; content written for
   a specific audience (say, lawyers) can (and should) be more complex than
   information written for a "general audience."  (However, often web
   content providers may underestimate the diversity of their audiences.)

* There is no exception for specific content that -must- be written in
   certain "complex" formats, such as:
   - Transcripts of speeches:  you should not rewrite what the President
     says just because you are putting the speech on the web
   - Legal documents:  you should not rewrite legal language merely
     because you are placing it on the web
   - Literature:  you can't rewrite shakespeare just because you are
     putting a version on the web
   - <!-- other examples are possible -->

* As well, there are a number of content types which specifically
   should not be forced into a "simple style", such as:
   - Rhetoric and opinion pieces:  I'm thinking here of things such as
     sarcasm, parody, and satire
   - Riddles, jokes, and puns:  explaining the joke often ruins the
     humor value
   - Poetry and creative writing:  some works of writing are specifically
     meant to not be "easily understood" and the meaning must be inferred
   - <!-- other examples are possible -->

So, this checkpoint is problematic as written.

Suggestion:  Remove the checkpoint entirely

This is based on the idea that while we can tell people how to present
content, we shouldn't be telling them what kinds of content to present.
Saying that text content must be written in a specific manner goes
beyond simply stating requirements for how to convey something in the
web medium; it demands fundamental changes to the content itself on
the expressive level.

(I maintain that...) There is no good way to craft a "write well"
checkpoint that is checkable, audience centric, and universally applicable.
Inclusion of a vague checkpoint of this nature serves to weaken the
guidelines and confuse the issue of accessibility.

Rather than requiring textual rewriting, we should concentrate on how
the specific features of the web medium can be used to enhance text
which is confusing -- for example, by suggesting links to a glossary,
annotation, or simpler explanation be added, as done in 3.5, 3.6, and
3.7.

Here's an example.  If you are placing the Constitution of the United
States online, you would not make it "more accessible" by rewriting it
in contemporary, simple language.  Rather, you would provide the
text as is, but add, for example, sidebar links, glossary terms, and
most likely some simple explanations for complex information.  But you
would _not_ rewrite the original text.  The checkpoint as written
implies that you _should_ and thus it is defective.  Instead we need
to concentrate on suggesting that users _supplement_ their text when
appropriate (and even _that_ is very hard to make checkable, isn't
it?).

-- 
Kynn Bartlett <kynn@idyllmtn.com>
http://www.kynn.com/
Received on Monday, 12 March 2001 10:16:04 GMT

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