UN writing isn’t very clear. But clear writing can promote human rights, level power imbalances, and boost transparency and accountability.
UN writing doesn’t have a great reputation for clarity.1 While its public-facing communication can be top-notch (the best), we still are a long way from clear writing becoming the norm.
So why do we, working in the UN and other rights-based organizations, want to use clear writing?
Reasons to write clearly in human-rights organizations
Why is it important for UN and international aid professionals to use plain language and write clearly? Here are four reasons.
To communicate effectively
We make it easier for our diverse readers to understand us. When we are easily understood, readers are more likely to believe us and our message. It boosts our credibility.
I love this guideline from a 1980 UN directive:
Writing for the United Nations calls for the same qualities of brevity, clarity, simplicity of language and logical organization of material as are desirable in all writing of a factual character.Editorial directive ST/CS/SER.A/13/Rev.4, 11 March 19802
We all need to be regularly reminded of this.
To promote human rights
A 2022 General Assembly resolution, for example, points out that people with disabilities need access to information to fully participate in society. It calls on all UN member states to promote and mainstream easy-to-understand communication (look for A/77/L.37 “Promoting and mainstreaming easy-to-understand communication for accessibility for persons with disabilities” on Resolutions of the 77th Session).
And others can benefit too, such as people with low literacy levels.
To correct power imbalances
Plain language helps even out power imbalances. When we use difficult language, we become gatekeepers of knowledge: we show that we hold the power over information, we have that privilege. Using clear language takes knowledge out of the hands of a privileged, powerful few and makes it accessible to everyone.
To create transparency
Clear writing contributes to transparency and good governance. By writing clearly, we show the people we serve, our donors, partners, and the public that we have nothing to hide. They can see that we hold ourselves accountable to them, which can help build public trust in our institutions and our work.
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Writing in the UN: two extremes
UN writing is complex because it has its roots in legal or technical documents, which are notorious for being dense and incomprehensible.3 The wording of international documents is often negotiated by states down to the comma. To get agreement, many compromises are made and vague phrases like “to the extent possible”4 are added to give the parties wiggle room (space to not fully follow the agreement).
And yes, sometimes, the writing needs to be kept soft to maintain good relations. As always, writing must match its purpose.
In contrast, the UN’s public-facing materials are incredibly engaging. Just look at the Secretary-General’s pressroom or UNICEF’s fundraising appeals: they are direct, clear, and compelling.
So why hasn’t this style of clear writing spread to the rest of the organization?
Some challenges of writing clearly in the UN
Here are some reasons I think the writing style in the organization remains predominantly old-fashioned and heavy.
- We want to be accepted and recognized as fellow professionals, so we copy the existing style and adopt the jargon. This is especially true for young professionals and contract workers who need to fit in quickly.
- We reuse past documents as templates because doing so is safe. But often this only reproduces (or worsens) unclear writing.5 Some professionals also rely on past examples because they are not confident in their English writing skills. (Could we use templates to promote clear writing?)
- There is a disconnect between the program teams vs. communication teams. Project managers and specialists tend to be familiar only with the academic writing style. Meanwhile, the comms team (if there is one) is often seen as a separate unit, and the writing specialists (including editors and translators) and program teams have few opportunities to learn from each other about writing needs and styles.
The next question is, of course, how can we write more clearly, especially when we’re trying to be diplomatic? I’ll write about that in another post. (Follow me on LinkedIn or Facebook or sign up to get updates if you want to be notified when new posts are out.)
Writing in the UN is often complex because writers have to balance diplomacy with clarity. And we copy the style that we see because it’s safe.
Here are four reasons why international development professionals want to write clearly.
- It lets us better communicate with our diverse audiences.
- It promotes human rights to information and to participation.
- It corrects power imbalances.
- It creates transparency and promotes good governance.
What are your reasons for using plain language in this field? Please share in the comments.
Get in touch to discuss whether we might be a good fit for your scholarly or international development writing project!
- My experience is purely with English documents. And I refer to the UN as one broad entity here, but as with any large organization, there can be a lot of variety.
- Unfortunately, I can’t find this elusive document online. It’s cited in: Deborah Cao and Xingmin Zhao, “Translation at the United Nations as Specialized Translation,” Journal of Specialised Translation 9 (2008) and UN Department of Peace Operations, Drafting correspondence and reports: Guidance for peacekeeping personnel, 2011. It was also quoted in the “Writing for the United Nations” self-paced, online course, but the course has been taken offline. Pity.
- See A Guide to Writing for the United Nations, by W. H. Hindle for the views of a career UN editor.
- Or “including but not limited to” and “as appropriate”
- My secret plan is to revamp all the templates I can get my hands on …!