Case study: text simplification for shipping procedures

Worldwide Marine Technology (WMT) writes technical operating documentation for the oil and gas industries (www.wmtmarine.com).

A shipping company had approximately 150 procedures with a total of approximately 2000 pages. During the life of the procedures, many changes were made to the procedures, and a full re-write was necessary. WMT won the contract to re-write the procedures.

For this project, more personnel were necessary:

TechScribe won the contract to supply the editing services in simplified English.

The source procedures had these language problems

The source procedures had many problems:

The remaining part of this section is about problems that are related to the language.

Instructions are not clear

One technical writer found these examples of unclear instructions. Questions from the technical writer are below each example:

Different terms refer to the same thing

In English, many different words can refer to same thing. Readers who do not know that the words are synonyms can be confused.

The verb 'decrease' has these synonyms and more:

Different technical terms can refer to the same thing. For example, the source procedures contained these synonyms for an item of equipment:

The source procedures contained these synonyms for a location:

Sentence structure is complex and instructions are not clear

The source procedures were written by marine experts, not by technical writers. Sentences were too complex and there were no clear instructions, as this example shows:

"Due to the nature of the cargo carried and possibility of automatic disconnection of arms, a risk of exposure of personnel to liquid natural gas exists in vicinity of cargo arms. To minimize such a probability, all Company operated LNG vessels are to control the presence of their personnel at the manifold during transfer."

Making the text as simple as possible

In safety-critical operations, if a person makes an error, people can die.

"Typical examples of immediate causes and contributing factors for human failures are… missing or unclear instructions" (www.hse.gov.uk/humanfactors/topics/core2.pdf).

Many personnel on the customer's ships use English as a second language. A requirement of the project was to write procedures for people who do not use English as their first language. The procedures must be satisfactory for people who have a reading age of 14.

To solve these problems, TechScribe recommended Simplified Technical English (STE) (www.asd-ste100.org). Because the customer asked only for 'simplified English', we did not try to write text that was fully compliant with STE.

Process for text simplification

Because of project schedules, there was not sufficient time to do the terminology management before the marine experts wrote the new procedures.

We used this process:

  1. Collect an initial set of terms from these sources:
  2. Discuss the initial list of terms with marine experts and customer personnel to identify the approved terms and not-approved alternatives.
  3. Receive the first draft of a procedure from a technical writer.
  4. From the first draft and from the related source documents, identify candidate technical terms and not-approved equivalent terms. The Internet was a good source of information, specially for the names of organizations and regulations.
  5. Discuss the technical terms with the technical writer to find the best terms to use.
  6. Send the technical terms to the customer for approval or correction.
  7. Edit the procedure to conform to STE as much as possible.
  8. Send the procedure to the technical writer for the next review.
  9. Put all the approved terms and the not-approved terms into Microsoft Excel. The technical writer had access to Microsoft Excel through SharePoint.
  10. Add the approved terms and the not-approved terms into the TechScribe STE term checker (www.simplified-english.co.uk). Use the term checker to do these things quickly:
    • Make sure that all the terms in the procedures are approved.
    • Make sure that text is clear for non-native readers. For example, do not use idiomatic verbs such as 'carry out'. Instead, use the STE approved term 'do' or some other approved verb.
    • Find all not-approved terms and their approved alternatives.
    • Find complex grammar structures.

Lessons learned

STE is designed for maintenance procedures. An organization can add a term to the dictionary of permitted terms only if the term is a noun, an adjective, or a verb, and if the term is in one or more of a small set of categories. We did not conform to STE, because some terms do not conform to STE:

At the end of the project, there were more than 2200 approved technical terms and 900 not-approved alternatives. We added terms to the dictionary during the project. This is not the best method, because a small quantity of rework was necessary. Ideally, terminology management is done as a separate project so that when technical writers start their work, they have a dictionary of all the approved terms and the not-approved terms.

Guidance from technical experts is important. For example, text contained the term 'intrinsically safe'. Initially, TechScribe removed 'intrinsically', because synonyms of 'intrinsically' are 'essentially', 'basically', 'inherently', 'innately', 'by nature', 'fundamentally'. But, 'intrinsically safe' is a technical adjective.

During the project, the customer changed some previously approved terms, but did not think about the implications such as inconsistency in the titles of related documents and checklists. There was no change procedure for the terminology management.

We assumed that titles of documents were correct. After 6 months, TechScribe learned that the customer wanted to make titles consistent with the approved terms.

Some reviewers changed good English into bad English and approved terms to not-approved terms. We did not give sufficient guidance to reviewers about what we wanted from them. The customer's style guide states, "Use a word as a noun or a verb, not both. Ambiguous: Watch the turtle nest." That rule is the same as the STE rule. But, the reviewers did not know the rule.

Some technical writers did not use the Microsoft Excel dictionary or the STE term checker (www.simplified-english.co.uk). This decreased their work, but increased the editing work.

Although there were some problems with the process, the customer was happy with the procedures from WMT.

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