W. H. Hindle, a career editor for the UN, wrote a guide on how to write clearly for the organization. Peppered with gems (pointing out the “sonorous polysyllables” with their “aura of sanctity”) and examples from real UN documents, his guide is a must-read for anyone working for an international organization.
Sir Ernest Gower, in his “Plain Words” (or his older “The Complete Plain Words”), made plain the absurdity of officialese. Well, it turns out that there’s a similar publication about UN writing!
It was written by W. H. Hindle, a career UN editor, and published by the UN in 1965, with a second printing in 1984. His observations and commentary strike home still.
Hindle’s commentary is full of humor. To give you a taste, here are some of my favorites.
On jargon, he says
[jargon has] grown like weeds until the flowers of information are hidden not only from laymen but even from specialists in other branches.
And a writer writing in a language not their own
is apt to believe that the sonorous polysyllables of previous United Nations reports must be used, particularly when these polysyllables have acquired an aura of sanctity through enshrinement in resolutions. Thus, many laymen for whom a report was intended may find it intelligible only after long and vexatious study.W. H. Hindle, A Guide to Writing for the United Nations, 1984, p.3
He suggests that “Mary had a little lamb” in bureaucratese (indirect and wordy) would be:
With respect to the question of pets, Mary exercised rights of ownership over a certain juvenile member of the sheep family.W. H. Hindle, A Guide to Writing for the United Nations, 1984, p.10
I don’t know why this booklet is not required reading for UN staff 😆
Guidance by writing stage
Hindle explains the steps to writing clearly:
- Before writing: give thought “to why we are going to write, what we are going to write, and how and for whom” (p.6)
- Planning: make an outline of what goes where
- Writing: use direct language (more below)
- Reviewing: check for accuracy and consistency, delete unnecessary repetition
And for writing, Hindle gives the do’s and don’ts. A sample:
- state the fact directly
- use verbs, rather than nouns
- use the active voice
- use concrete rather than abstract words
- use short words, sentences, paragraphs
- use offensive language
- don’t inflate
On inflating, he says:
“Emphasis can be a useful tool. Overuse blunts it. When we emphasize everything, nothing is emphasized.” (p. 12)
He closes with:
Finally, lest exhortations to simplicity and clarity should have been followed too slavishly, we should make sure that we have not insulted our readers’ intelligence.W. H. Hindle, A Guide to Writing for the United Nations, 1984, p.20
That means: these guidelines aren’t the law. We’re not meant to dogmatically chop down every multisyllabic word; we need to consider what is best for the reader.
The book’s annexes include more examples of what to do/not to do (using real examples that he saw as editor at the UN), a demonstration of how passages might be revised, and examples of good UN writing (in an annex titled “United Nations writers can write” 😆).
Recommended for: Anyone who works for an international organization
Sure, some words may have gone out of fashion or mainstream since Hindle wrote the book.
But the main principles remain the same.
If you are not sure how plain language could be used for the UN and other international, intergovernmental organizations, the examples from the field will still feel familiar.
W. H. Hindle. A Guide to Writing for the United Nations. New York: United Nations, 1984.
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[Edited 23 May 2023: Thanks to Jack Alexander for pointing out an error! If you need a good, helpful academic and non-fiction proofreader, go find Jack 😉 ]
Cover photo by UN Photo/MB. The United Nations printing plant is located in a basement under the Conference building. This plant, operated by Secretariat staff, produces thousands of U.N. documents a year. At busy periods, such as Assembly sessions, it operates on a 24-hour basis. The collating and saddle-stitching of a new United Nations book at the U.N. printing plant. 1954.