A Guide to Using Plain English
Learn how to simplify your print and online content using plain English so that your communications are clear and easy to understand for a wide audience.
Plain English reduces confusion and makes your text more enjoyable to read.
Use plain language to make your articles clearer, sharper, and shorter. Plain language writing is a style of writing that makes your intentions clear, easy to understand, and accessible to diverse readers. It is an approach to writing that focuses on the needs of your readeers.
When it comes to your posts, online articles, and websites, keeping your readers' needs in mind starts by understanding what questions they would use to find what they're looking for. Many search queries start with:
- Why is...
- Where is...
- What is...
- When is...
- Who is...
- How is...***
If you can imagine what kind of questions your readers might be asking themselves to find your information, you'll increase the chances of your website being found.
***Hint: Creating a Frequently Asked Questions section on your site using the above phrases can increase your long-tail keywords search ranking.
Did you know October 13 is International Plain Language Day? On October 13, 2010, the U.S. government passed the Plain Writing Act, a groundbreaking decision requiring all government staff to begin using plain language in all their communications with the public.
A sample guide to plain words
find out, learn
at the present time
excessive number of
for the reason that
in an effort to
in the event that
on a regular basis
with reference to
Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them.— John Ruskin
Respect your readers' needs. Some people think that plain language writing will make their articles sound boring, dull, and condescending. Certainly, plain language has the potential to undo a fine piece of literary fiction. But if someone is looking for medical information on a recent diagnosis, or needs to find a new job after a layoff, they are not looking to be entertained with fluffy language. They are looking for answers.
Why does plain language matter?
Don't make up words to sound clever. If a word can't be found in a dictionary, how can other people understand its meaning?
Have you ever heard of—
- localised capacity deficiency (traffic jam)
- intuitively counterproductive (stupid)
- manually operated humus extractor (a shovel)
- fiscal underachievers (poor people)
- negative patient care outcome (death)
Made-up words such as these are the sign of an unskilled writer trying to impress the reader. He could also be trying to avoid a difficult subject. For example, can you imagine a doctor telling you that there was a negative patient care outcome when referring to your relative who has just died? Would hearing that phrase instead of ‘died’ make you feel any better?
My aim is to make things as simple as possible, but not simpler than that.— Albert Einstein
Here's a final thought on using plain language to reach your audience. Did you know that according to a Health Canada study, about 22 percent of adult Canadians can not read a medicine label to determine the correct amount of medicine to give to a child?
Plain language isn't about dumbing down what we're writing and trying to reach a lowest common reading level. It's about being respectful of your readers' needs. It's about a commitment to being fair and empathetic to our readers.
Challenge yourself to try writing in plain language. It will be harder to do than you might think at first -- old Grade 12 Creative Writing habits die hard -- but with practice you'll soon be able to trim excess words to make your writing leaner, cleaner, and clearer.
© 2012 Sally Hayes