April 05, 2021

Plain Language Explained in Plain Language

A hand holding a pencil

What is “plain language”? By way of example, it’s the difference between this:

A preponderance of esoteric nomenclature in a linguistic composition inhibits comprehension, inherently compromising the reader’s ability to consume the content with an adequate measure of clarity and alacrity.

And this:

Writing something that’s hard to read makes it hard to understand.

Plain Language Defined

Plain language is clear, concise, well-organized writing free from complicated terms and complex sentence structures. To break down that description, “clear” means it’s easy for someone to understand the first time they read it. “Concise” means it says what it needs to in as few words as possible. 

“Well-organized” speaks to the structure of information. Plain language uses features like headers and subheads to guide the reader’s eye. Content is broken down into small blocks, so it’s easy to scan, follow, and comprehend.

“Complicated terms” references the utilization of abstruse terminology that might obfuscate one’s communications. Said better: Avoid fancy words. Simple is best. The same holds true for “complex sentence structures.” Don’t pack too much information into one sentence or jam it full of clauses, conjunctions, etc. Break down information into bite-sized portions so it’s easy to digest.

The Benefits of Plain Language

Plain language benefits you and your users in many ways, but here are three that have the biggest impact.

Saves you time, money, and resources

When users can easily understand the information you’re sharing, they have a clear idea of how to use your agency’s services and programs. This means they’ll make fewer errors when filling out forms, gathering documents, getting necessary signatures, properly submitting materials and payment, etc. This increases efficiency and limits the time you and your team spend answering questions by phone or email. Likewise, you won’t have to invest as many resources returning incomplete applications with additional instructions, documents, and forms.

Creates a better user experience

As a user, it’s frustrating to go to a web page looking for a key bit of information only to encounter one big wall of text. This frustration intensifies if the user is in a moment of crisis, seeking critical assistance from your agency to address an urgent need. Plain language solves this issue by being well organized. Headers and subheads let users know what information lives where, and the content is logically broken down into small, relevant sections. Your visitors can quickly and easily scan the content on your web page to find what they seek and take action.

Allows you to reach and help more people

Your audience is diverse. Individuals of different ages, educational levels, cultures, backgrounds, and abilities come to your website looking for information and help. By keeping terms and sentence structures simple, plain language ensures as many people as possible can access, understand, and use your content. Similarly, because it is well organized, visually impaired users who rely on screen readers to consume digital content can easily follow and understand the information on your website.

Tips for Writing in Plain Language

Here are some general guidelines to help you write in plain language.

  • Aim for middle school reading level, which is 6-8 grade
  • Stick to commonly used and understood words and terms
  • Use headers, subheads, short sentences and paragraphs, bullet points, lists, etc. to organize your content and make it easy to scan
  • Write in the second person (use “you” and other pronouns)
  • Use the active voice, not the passive voice

Resources to Help You 

Plain language is easy to read but it’s not necessarily easy to write. Here are some resources to help you learn how to use plain language and gauge the readability of your content.

  • Hemingway Editor – This free, web-based tool automatically gauges the reading level of your text, and highlights what type of issues exist and where. It also provides recommendations on how to improve the reliability of your text.
  • Plainlanguage.gov – The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) provides comprehensive resources, including educational materials, style guides, and writing and reference tools, to help you learn about plain language and how to use it.
  • Simple Word List – This quick reference resource from PLAIN helps you find simple word substitutes for complex words.
  • GovHub Analytics – If you’re subscribed to GovHub, you can find out how readable your content is by using GovHub Analytics. Powered by Siteimprove, GovHub Analytics regularly reviews your website and lets you know, among many other things, how readable your content is. It also describes the issues and suggests how to fix them.

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