Plain Language

Plain language is communication that your audience or readers can understand the first time they hear or read it.

We use plain language so people can:

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Use what they find

Why Should We Use Plain Language?

It’s the law. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to write "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use."

It’s nice. It shows the people out there that we care about what they want and need. It moves the focus from us to them. It also closes the distance between the “big mighty government” and the people we serve by using a tone that is less imposing and more understandable.

It’s faster in the long run. You’re writing something down so someone will do something. If they don’t understand what you want them to do, they’ll either need to ask you (meaning more time on email or the phone), they’ll make an assumption and possibly make a mistake, or they just won’t do it. If you make sure your language is plain, it’s more likely the reader understand and act.

Readability. According to Nielsen Norman Group, readability measures the complexity of the words and sentence structure in a piece of content. Complex sentences are often harder to parse and read than simpler ones. Readability is usually reported as the reading level (stated as years of formal education) needed to easily read the text. For example, a 12th grade reading level means that somebody with a high school diploma will be able to read your content without difficulty.

The main guidelines to ensure readability are:

  • Aim at an 8th grade reading level if targeting a broad audience.
  • If writing for an educated or specialized audience, still target a reading level several steps below the audience’s formal education level. A 12th grade reading level is often a good target to make text easy for readers with college degrees.

Remember that writing at an specific grade's reading level is different than writing for students who’re currently attending school in that grade. There are special design guidelines for targeting young kids Visit disclaimer page , teenagers Visit disclaimer page , and millennials Visit disclaimer page . We simply want words and sentences that correspond to our target audiences, but written in a mature tone of voice.

The Three Parts of Plain Language

Plain Language is about words, structure, and most of all, people.

People

Before you start writing, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Who am I writing this for?
  2. What do they need?

This is your audience. Every choice you make, from the language you use to the subjects you discuss should make sense in the context of your audience.

Structure

Put the important stuff first. Don’t spend the first three paragraphs of the page giving the background of the program before talking about the point of the page. Someone scanning might not make it through those three paragraphs. Start with key information, and then move into background and context..

Avoid the “wall of text.” Don’t make your reader face down pages of tiny type. Help them scan.

  • Keep your sentences short (20 words)
  • Keep paragraphs short (5-7 sentences)
  • Use clear headers
  • Lists and bullets are great (see?)

Choose your content wisely. What information really needs to be here? Does this particular document/webpage/report need to cover this information, or would the information be better in a different or separate product? It’s much easier to use plain language if we’re just saying less.

Words

Stay active. An active sentence makes it clear who or what is doing the action.

Passive

Active

The new report was published

We published a new report

The sealed envelope must be sent to the address below

Send your sealed envelope to the address below

Your application has been denied by the Department of State

Department of Defense denied your application

Eliminate unnecessary or confusing words. More words ​​​aren't always better. Bigger words don’t make you look smarter.

Keep an eye out for:

  • “Big” words – words that have clear and simpler synonyms
    • Utilize (use), facilitate (help), regarding (about), prior to (before)
  • Redundancies – using three words when you only need one
    • At a later time (later), worked jointly together (worked together), will plan in the future (plans)
  • Verbs disguised as nouns
    • Conduct an analysis (analyze), present a report (report), do an assessment (assess)

Avoid jargon and acronyms. Jargon is words that we use commonly but that might not be familiar to our readers. Be particularly careful if we’re using a common word in a particular way. Does self-sufficient mean the same thing to everyone?

Acronyms turn your writing into a research paper, making your reader keep re-translating the letters. If you must use them, limit yourself to one or two. Also consider using nicknames – after the first reference, the Witness Protection Unit could become the Unit.

None of this is to say that there aren’t situations where jargon or acronyms could be helpful or appropriate. Remember – it’s all about your audience.

Watch your tone. In plain language we want to make sure that the reader knows who we’re talking to. We also want to close the distance between writer and reader.

Use pronouns to make it clear who is the actor (we, us) and the recipient (you).

Contractions can help make your writing sound more like speech. Can’t instead of cannot, won’t instead of will not.

Resources