Plain language is writing that is “clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.” To use it, you don’t have to dumb down your material; even if you’re writing for an educated audience, these techniques will benefit your readers. Think of plain language as a science-based way to help convey your meaning in a quicker, more precise, and powerful way.
With that in mind, here are some tips for incorporating plain language in your writing.
- Put the most important information first—in each paragraph and in the document itself. Doing so helps busy readers and those with limited literacy quickly grasp your message and gives them a structure for the ideas to come.
- Aim for short sentences (20–25 words maximum) and paragraphs (100–125 words at the most). Long sentences and paragraphs are complicated and hard to follow. Short sentences are ideal for conveying technical information. You’ll also want to break up long sections with headings and subheadings, which are useful for multiple reasons. They tell readers what to expect, make it easy to find information later, and help create white space on the page.
- Use familiar, everyday language. Use of plain language focuses on communicating your message, not showing off your vocabulary. Using a shorter, more common word will benefit your readers, so choose “fiscal” instead of “pecuniary,” “lie” instead of “prevaricate,” and “arctic” instead of “gelid.” Avoid jargon, define acronyms, and make sure your metaphors are universal—or, at least, that your audience will understand them. Sure, “Joe Six-Pack” is in Merriam-Webster’s, but your international readers will appreciate you subbing in “everyman” instead.
- Use active voice—most of the time. Passive voice can create ambiguity. (“It was decided that”—decided by whom?) But it’s handy when you don’t know who the actor is or when it doesn’t matter. Take the following sentence: “In all, 259 people were approached, of which 43 declined to participate.” The focus here is on the participants, not the survey takers, so leaving the passive voice works just fine.
- Eliminate repetitive information, and condense or simplify wordy text. Search for verbose phrases, and replace them with a shorter alternative:
|a number of||several, many|
|at the present time||now|
|due to the fact that, in view of the fact that, owing to the fact that||due to, because|
|has the ability to, has the opportunity to, is able to, is capable of||can|
|in order to||to|
|in the near future||soon (or just say when, specifically)|
|it is incumbent upon, it is necessary that, it is crucial that, it needs to||must, should|
|it is important to note that||notably|
|on a monthly basis||monthly|
|with regard to||regarding, about|
- Avoid hidden verbs (also called nominalizations), and instead use an action verb to simplify your writing. Some hidden verbs pair with other verbs like “achieve,” “effect,” “give,” “have,” “make,” “reach,” “result in,” and “take.” Other hidden verbs end in -ance, –ment, -sion, and –tion.
|We reached a decision that …||We decided that …|
|The C-suite will take into consideration …||The C-suite will consider …|
|The board made an announcement …||The board announced …|
- Speak directly to your reader. Many writers hesitate to use second person, fearing it sounds too casual. But using pronouns helps draw readers in and makes your material more relevant to them. It sounds natural, whereas third person can sound stuffy—or worse, ambiguous.
- Work with a designer to make your piece even easier to read. Look for ways to add more white space on the page—and thus make it more scannable. Break long paragraphs into bulleted lists or smaller paragraphs, and don’t justify the text to create more white space.
Using plain language is simple but not easy. Keep these guidelines—and your audience—in mind, and you’ll be off to a good start. For more information, check out the resources offered by the Plain Language Action and Information Network and Plain Language Association International.
Written by Senior Editor Molly Gamborg and edited by Business and Technical Editing Manager Cynthia Williams