A Definitive Guide to Using Plain Language in Writing

A Definitive Guide to Using Plain Language in Writing

Plain language is a writing style that aims to make written content easy to understand for the majority of readers, regardless of their reading level, cultural background, or education level. The use of plain language can be especially important when communicating complex or technical information. In plain language, writers use simple, clear, and concise language to convey their message. They avoid using technical terms or jargon that might be confusing to readers who are not familiar with the subject matter. They also use short sentences, active voice, and concrete examples to make the information more accessible and easier to understand. Plain language is used in various contexts, such as legal documents, government forms, healthcare materials, and educational materials. It is a valuable tool for improving communication and making sure that essential information is accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of education or literacy.

Importance of plain language

Plain language is important because it allows information to be easily understood by a wide audience, regardless of their education level or background knowledge on the subject matter. Here are some reasons why plain language is important;

  1. Clarity: Using plain language ensures that information is clear and easily understood by the intended audience. When information is presented in a way that is too complex or filled with jargon, it can create confusion and misunderstandings.
  2. Accessibility: Plain language makes information accessible to people with different levels of education, language proficiency, and cognitive abilities. It also makes it easier for people with disabilities, such as dyslexia or visual impairments, to understand the information.
  3. Transparency: Plain language promotes transparency by making information easier to read and understand. This can help build trust between organizations and their stakeholders, and ensure that people are fully informed about important decisions that affect them.
  4. Efficiency: Plain language can save time and resources by reducing the need for follow-up questions or clarifications. This is particularly important in situations where timely and accurate information is critical, such as in emergencies or medical settings.

Tips on how to use plain language in writing

Here are the pointers on how to use plain language in writing;

  1. Know Your Audience: The first step in using plain language is to understand your readers. Consider their age, education level, cultural background, and prior knowledge of the subject. It will help you tailor your language to their level of comprehension and make the information more accessible.
  2. Use Simple Words: Avoid using complicated or technical terms that your readers may not be familiar with. Instead, use simpler words that are easy to understand and commonly used in everyday language. For example, instead of using the term “utilize,” use “use.”
  3. Keep Sentences Short: Long sentences can be difficult to follow and can make the information harder to understand. Break up long sentences into shorter ones, and use bullet points or numbered lists to help organize information. It can make the information easier to digest and more accessible to readers.
  4. Use Active Voice: Using active voice makes your writing more direct and easier to understand. In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action, which can make the sentence easier to follow. 
  5. Use Concrete Examples: Providing concrete examples and analogies can help to clarify complex concepts and make them more understandable. Use relatable examples to help your readers connect with the information. For example, if you’re explaining a technical concept, try to use a real-world analogy to make it more relatable.
  6. Avoid Jargon: Jargon is the specialized language that is specific to a particular industry or field. Avoid using jargon unless it is necessary, and always define any jargon you do use. If you must use jargon, try to explain it in simple terms that your readers can understand.
  7. Break up Text: Use subheadings, bullet points, and numbered lists to break up long blocks of text. It can help to make the information more digestible and easier to understand. It can also help readers to find the information they need quickly and easily.
  8. Test Your Writing: Finally, it’s essential to test your writing to make sure it’s easy to understand. Ask someone who is not familiar with the subject matter to read your writing and give you feedback. It can assist you to identify areas where you need to simplify or clarify your language and make sure that your writing is accessible to a wider audience.

It’s important to remember that not every guideline for plain writing will apply to every situation. The main objective is to make your writing accessible and easy to understand which often requires you to identify your audience’s needs and adjust your language accordingly. To integrate plain language into your writing, it’s helpful to consider readability and structure from the beginning. Start with an outline that outlines each section’s topic sentence and the main topics to be covered in each section. It helps you maintain a clear and logical flow of information. After completing a first draft, use tools like Readable to highlight areas of complex or confusing language that can be simplified. Finally, ask someone else to read through your writing and provide feedback on any areas that can be further revised to improve readability.

When to use plain language and when not to use

Plain language should generally be used whenever communicating important information to an audience. It can be necessary for situations where the audience may have limited literacy, education, or familiarity with the subject matter. Some examples of when plain language should be used include;

  • Legal documents: Legal documents are often filled with complex and technical language that can be difficult for non-lawyers to understand. Using plain language in legal documents can help ensure that people understand their rights and responsibilities.
  • Government forms: Government forms are often confusing and difficult to fill out. Using plain language in government forms can help ensure that people can easily provide the necessary information.
  • Healthcare materials: Healthcare materials often contain complex medical terminology that can be difficult for patients to understand. Using plain language in healthcare materials can assist in ensuring that patients understand their medical conditions, treatment options, and instructions.
  • Educational materials: Educational materials should be written in a way that is accessible to students of all ages and backgrounds. Using plain language in educational materials can help ensure that students can understand and engage with the material.

However, there may be some situations where plain language is not appropriate. For example, in academic or technical writing, it may be necessary to use specialized language and terminology to accurately convey information. In creative writing, the use of literary devices such as metaphors, similes, and symbolism may be a vital part of the author’s artistic expression.