When I dream of writing, the words are chosen with care. They are short and clear to all who read them and most of all, they are plain.
Plain language writing is not what you think. It is not for the slow. It is not for those who cannot read. It is not a tool for others. Well, it is all of those things and more. Plain language helps you to share the complex. It puts your audience first and makes sure you reach the busy. Think about that for a moment. Who has time to untangle complex language so that they can get to the meaning? How often do we simply skim ideas because they will take too much time to understand?
Plain language isn’t about how smart your reader is. It’s about how smart you are. It’s about how important your message is. If it matters, it should be plain.
Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge.
Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.
Did you know that the general public has low literacy levels? The exceptions are Japan and Finland. If most of your readers are in North America, this means you need to keep things plain. Plain does not mean creative stays home and boring takes flight. You’re probably using plain language techniques now. It’s about using words that are better known, more familiar and more clearly understood. Take a look below. To make language plain you would replace the words on the left with the words on the right.
- Accomplish Do
- Ascertain Find out
- Disseminate Distribute
- Endeavor Try
- Optimum Best
- Strategize Plan
- With regards to About
Plain language is about being approachable. Using a conversational tone instead of formal language. It’s about using logic when you present. That can be a challenge for me at times, but with a little patience I generally get there. It’s really about using common sense and a little patience.
Plain language is also about the length of sentences and the space around them. White space is your friend. Do not bury words in complex patterns. Give words room to breath and be seen. Plain language is about the fonts you choose. Are they complex? Do you have to look twice to identify letters? It’s about the use of examples, charts and images to illustrate ideas. Images are popular on social media because people can understand them quickly. They make the text come alive. They go a long ways towards making ideas clearer. The same goes for bullets and bold type to make ideas pop.
“Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in a few words.”
When I work on an annual report, I work with the writer and designer to ensure that readers can easily see the most important ideas. Those ideas are repeated in the text. They become images, graphs, headlines and call-outs. We make sure that they have enough space around them to be seen. The objective is to make sure that if the reader just skims the report t still walk away with all of the right messages.
Here are some tips for planning your next document.
- Use titles & subtitles that are informative and summarize text
- Cut out non-essential information (cover only 3-5 points)
- Prioritize information and put the most important at the beginning
- Use a formal table of contents or introductory paragraph
- Keep sentences under 35 words
- Use the active voice where possible
It’s also useful to use verbs instead of nouns for your action. Sometimes this is as easy as removing “ion” from words. For example, which of the two sentences below sounds simpler?
Could you give an explanation for why you suggest I make a modification to the way I present information?
Could you explain why I should modify the way I present information?
In case you think that I believe using plain language is easy, I don’t. I started out by saying that when I dream of writing, the words are chosen with care. Plain language takes time. It takes commitment and perhaps more than anything, it takes practice. It is worth doing. It allows you to move from good to great and the best part is, you’re probably already doing a lot of it.
Do you use plain language principles in your work? What kinds of everyday items do you think use plain language? Can you think of things that could benefit from plain language?
Embraced by Words (Photo credit: Robbert van der Steeg)