Give it to Me Straight! - The Power of Plain Language

What is plain language?

"A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information." ~ Center for Plain Language

"Plain language is clear, concise, organized, and appropriate for the intended audience." ~ The National Archives

What are the benefits of plain language?

When information, instructions and ideas are written in plain language:

  • You reach a wider audience.
  • You lessen the chance that your document will be misunderstood.
  • Instructions can be fully understood and followed correctly.
  • Reading is easier for anyone who is tired, distracted, under stress or working outside of one’s first language - as well as those with low literacy skills and cognitive and learning disabilities. 

Plain language and accessibility

  • Who benefits?
    Clear, concise words convey clear, concise thought, which benefits individuals with cognitive and learning disabilities, language impairments, memory impairments, and autism.
  • How do they benefit?
    Simple tense, literal language and an active voice make information more perceivable, understandable, findable, accessible and inclusive.

What are the characteristics of plain language?

  • Write for your reader, not yourself.
  • Use pronouns when you can.
  • State your major point(s) first before going into details.
  • Stick to your topic.
  • Limit each paragraph to one idea and keep it short.
  • Write in active voice. Use the passive voice only in rare cases.
  • Use short sentences as much as possible.
  • Use everyday words. If you must use technical terms, explain them on the first reference.
  • Omit unneeded words.
  • Keep the subject and verb close together.
  • Use headings, lists, and tables to make reading easier.
  • Proofread your work, and have a colleague proof it as well.

 ~ Courtesy of The National Archives

What does plain language read like?

The following examples are in no way an exhaustive list. Please visit the resources listed below to learn more about writing and editing for plain language. All images are courtesy of plainlanguage.gov.

Omit redundant words. Don't say: The X Department and the Y Department worked together on a joint project to improve... | Say: The X and Y Departments worked on a project to improve...

Cut excess modifiers - We often use modifiers like absolutely, actually, completely, really, quite, totally, and very. But if you look closely, you’ll find that they’re probably not necessary and may even be nonsensical. Don't say: Their claim was totally unrealistic. Say: Their claim was absurd. Don't say: It is particularly difficult to reconcile the somewhat differing views expressed by the management team. Say: It is difficult to reconcile the differing views expressed by the management team. Don't say: Total disclosure of all facts is very important to make sure we draw up a total and completely accurate picture of the Agency’s financial position. Say: Disclosing all facts is important to creating an accurate picture of the Agency’s financial position.

What are hidden verbs? A hidden verb (or nominalization) is a verb converted into a noun. It often needs an extra verb to make sense. For example, “Please make an application for a personal loan” is longer and less clear than “Please apply for a personal loan.” Hidden verbs come in two forms. Some have endings such as -merit, -tion, -sion, and - ance or link with verbs such as achieve, effect, give, have, make, reach, and take. Don't say: To trace the missing payment, we need to carry out a review of the Agency’s accounts so we can gain an understanding of the reason the error occurred. Say: To trace the missing payment, we need to review the Agency’s accounts so we understand the reason the error occurred. Don't say: If you cannot make the payment of the $100 fee, you must make an application in writing before you file your tax return. Say: If you cannot pay the $100 fee, you must apply in writing before you file your tax return.

Are there tools I can use to help me write in plain language?

You will find many readability scoring tools out there. Lucky for you, DubBot has six of built into its automated solution. For example, DubBot offers the Flesch Reading Ease, which assigns text a score between 1 and 100, with 100 being the highest readability score. Average adults should find text with a score between 70 and 80 fairly easy to read.

If you’re looking for a tool to test your text before dropping it into an email or a contract document, the Heimingway Editor is a color-coded desktop app that checks reading level and offers suggestions for improvement. Probably the best-known tool is Grammarly, which makes suggestions to improve your text, it also corrects misspellings, imperfect grammar, and punctuation errors.

Writing in plain language is not a new trend. Yet, "It’s one of the most neglected aspects of accessibility, but seemingly one of the easiest to fix" (Andrew Pulrang, "Plain Language Writing – An Essential Part of Accessibility," Forbes magazine, EDITORS' PICK | Oct. 22, 2020). Providing accessible information through the use of plain language should be well within any organization’s capabilities.

Resources

Maggie Vaughan, CPACC
~ friend of DubBot, A11Y practitioner in higher ed