Part 1: What is plain language?
Part 2: Why you should use plain language in your business.
Plain language writing means uses writing techniques and layout design to make your message clear to the reader. It is user-friendly writing.
It's not as easy as it sounds to write in plain language . And there are no rules on how to write in plain language – just guidelines. The guidelines are there to help you, but different contexts or readers mean that the guidelines must be interpreted correctly for your purpose.
There are two stages to writing a document in plain language:
Stage 1: Planning the structure and flow of the document.
Stage 2: Writing the sentences using plain language techniques.
Stage 1: Structure and flow
A clear structure helps the reader find the most important information fast. This means that they can understand the purpose and meaning of your writing quickly, and take action faster.
Before you start writing, think about your reader, then plan the structure of your document.
Understand your reader and your purpose
Once you have a good picture of your reader and your purpose, you can use the following techniques for the layout of your content.
Techniques to make your information easy to find
Stage 2: Guidelines for writing in plain language
These techniques are guidelines for using plain language in writing. Consider whether each one is appropriate for your context. It’s OK to break a guideline when it’s not appropriate.
1. Use short sentences
Sentences should be no more than 15 to 20 words. The longer the sentence, the harder it is to follow.
Mix up the length of sentences to keep it interesting. And make every word count. Short sentences can be punchy, but longer sentences can help the flow.
Follow the basic principle of keeping one idea for each sentence, with sometimes a related point added (as I did here).
If you find yourself writing in very long sentences, break each into two or more sentences. The ‘and’ is usually a good place to break a sentence.
2. Use active voice
Passive voice is often used in official communications, as there is a perception that it sounds professional. But active voice is easier and quicker to understand.
Passive: Your application will be considered shortly.
Active: We will consider your application shortly.
Passive: The building had to be closed by the council.
Active: The council had to close the building.
When it’s OK to use passive voice:
Sometimes it is appropriate to use passive voice, but do so only sparingly.
Passive: The bill has not been paid.
Active: You have not paid the bill.
Passive: A mistake was made
Active: We made a mistake
Avoid phrases such as ‘it is recommended’ or ’it is noted’.
3. Use ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘I’
Using ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘I’ makes the writing personal by addressing the reader directly, and it keeps the sentences shorter. A reader is more likely to remember the instructions when spoken to directly, and it avoids clumsy sentences.
Impersonal: Applicants must send us …
Personal: You must send us …
Impersonal: The department always tells customers before …
Personal: We will always tell you …
It is OK to use ‘I’ and ‘we’ in the same document.
4. Choose words appropriate for the reader
Use words that your reader will understand. And know your target audience. This doesn’t mean using only simple words – it means using words you reader will know, or explaining more difficult or new words if they can’t be avoided.
Avoid jargon unless your target audience will know it. Jargon words are words that only a specific group of people knows. For example, don't use an uncommon scientific term for a general audience, but if you are writing for scientists in a particular field that use that jargon, you can use the scientific term.
5. Give direct instructions
It might feel polite to use long sentences for instructions, but this may confuse the message. It’s OK to use commands.
Use ‘please’ to soften the command, but remember that ‘please’ gives the reader the option to refuse, so don’t use it if something must be done.
Indirect: Passengers are advised not to leave their luggage unattended.
Direct: Please do not leave your bags unattended.
Direct: Do not leave your bags unattended.
Don’t use ‘should’.
Indirect: Customers should wait in line to be served.
Direct: Please wait in line to be served.
6. Be positive
Emphasise the positive. Being positive makes it easier to understand and to follow the instruction.
Negative: If you don’t complete the form, we can’t process your payment.
Positive: Please complete the form so we can process your payment.
7. Avoid nominalisations
Nominalisations are when a verb or adjective is used as a noun. These add unnecessary words that can slow understanding.
Words ending with -ion, -tion, -ing, -ment, -end, -ance/-ence and -ancy/-ency are often nominalisations.
Here are some examples of nominalisations:
The advancement of = advance
The completion of = complete
The facilitation of = facilitate
The provision of = provide
Holds a meeting = meets
Comes to a conclusion = concludes
Takes action = acts
Had a discussion = discussed
With nominalisations: Suitable land in sufficient quantities is acquired in appropriate areas and subjected to site development in advancement of the commencement of actual house construction.
Plain language: Enough suitable land is acquired whenever it is needed, and is developed before houses are built on it.
8. Use lists
Lists can be a good way of breaking up a long sentence. Using bullet points makes the information easy to read and understand.
BEFORE: Apply if you are aged (65 years old or older), blind, or disabled and have low income and few resources. Apply if you are terminally ill and want to receive hospice services. Apply if you are aged, blind, or disabled; live in a nursing home; and have low income. Apply if you are aged, blind, or disabled and need nursing home care, but can stay at home with special community care services.
You may apply if you are:
9. Avoid clichés
Avoid using clichés. A cliché doesn’t usually mean what the words say, so the meaning will not be understood by readers who don’t know it. Overuse of clichés makes your writing sound unoriginal.
An elephant in the room
A level playing field
10. Choose the plainer option
Filler words may feel polite to use but they are just in the way of making your message quick and easy to understand.
Wordy sentence: The department will be taking steps to improve its level of service over and above what it is now.
Plain English: The department will improve its level of service.
The second option is much clearer and quicker, but no less polite.
Wordy sentence: You are advised for your information that you should call into this office personally to complete the form.
Plain English: Call into this office to complete the form.
Or: Please call into this office to complete the form.
If you are writing a document or book in plain language and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of business documents and non-fiction books. I can discuss with you where your writing is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your writing shine, please contact me.
I would love to hear from you.
Hi, I'm Marja!
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