Below you will find a definition of plain language, as well as some tips and suggestions for writing plain language.
Plain language is about making information accessible and useful. According to the international definition, 'communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information'.
Following the steps below will help you write a readable and usable text.
- Define your target audience and purpose. Who are you writing for and why? What do you want your readers to know or be able to do when they have read your text? Use one or two introductory sentences to explain this.
- Plan your content. Starting with headings and subheadings is often a good way to plan your text. Which information do you need to include? What is already known to the readers and can be left out? If some information is not relevant to all readers, you can indicate this by using an informative subheading.
- Structure your content in a way that makes sense to the reader. This usually means that the most important information comes first. How else will the readers be able to decide if they need to read the whole text or not?
- Divide the text into logical units. One idea=one paragraph. Start with a topic sentence and expand this in the paragraph.
- Be generous with subheadings, and make them informative. Creating 'signposts' for the reader makes navigating the text easier.
- Use lists for longer enumerations and for instructions.
- Do not fill your pages, but make sure to leave plenty of space on the page as this improves readability.
- Keep it short, and cut any unncessary words. Too much information can obscure the main message, and the value of a document does not increase the longer it gets.
- Vary sentence length. Too many very long, or very short, sentences will have a negative impact on the readbility of a text. Varied sentence length makes for a more comfortable reading rhythm.
- Keep it simple. Use words that can be understood, avoid jargon and explain necessary specialist terms.
A common misconception about plain language is that it is not allowed to use specialist terminology. This is not the case, but unless you are absolutely certain that all intended readers are well acquainted with the terms you use, you should explain them. Also, avoid unnecessarily formal or obsolete terms.
- Help the reader follow your train of thought by using connectors such as 'but', 'however', 'so', 'because' to link your paragraphs.
- Avoid too many passives. Although there are times when the passive works fine, active voice often works better, and there are cases where the passive may confuse the reader because it is not clear who performs an action. Write 'X sent the document', not 'The document was sent by X'.
- Cut out excess nouns. Verbs are more direct and less abstract. For example, write 'consider', not 'give consideration to'. Write 'evaluate', not 'carry out an evaluation of'.
- Avoid grammar mistakes. Grammar mistakes reduce readability and may make the reader doubt the content.
- Always proofread your text. Running the grammar and spell checkers in Word does not count as proofreading. If several writers contribute to a text, it is vital to have one person read the whole text to guarantee consistency.
- Test your text. Ideally, ask someone from your target audience to read the text and give you feedback. If this is not possible, ask a colleague.
- Plain language checklist
- Plain writing guidelines from Plain Language International
- 15 tips on writing plain English from the Plain Language Commission (pdf)
- Plain English Lexicon from the Plain Langugage Commission (pdf, 4 Mb)