The beauty of plain

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.” Winston Churchill

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.

 

  1. Accomplish                      Do
  2. Ascertain                          Find out
  3. Disseminate                    Distribute
  4. Endeavor                          Try
  5. Optimum                          Best
  6. Strategize                         Plan
  7. 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.”

Apocrypha

 

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)


18 responses to “The beauty of plain

  • Agree with you completely, Debra. Have used plain language ever since I started writing. If you use complicated language a lot of people will misunderstand what you write. A terrible example of difficult texts are bureaucratic language. Sometimes the bureaucrats themselves are not certain what their texts are saying.

  • I’m amazed how may have forgotten this principal when writing business documents. Let’s not talk about the lawyers who have a language all their own:) Hint: Never get a lawyer to write an annual report:) Literature is different, I think, where descriptive language needs to evoke all senses and requires more complex language and sentence structure. But even when writing fiction, say what you mean is always the best rule of thumb.

  • Yes, writing workshops emphasize the use of accessible language. After all, no one wants to alienate their audience or have their readers turn away. In fact, I was discussing a related point recently with another writer regarding the low literacy rates. It seems that simpler writing does attract more attention on the internet, unfortunately, so much of it is not only simple, also poorly written.

  • Hi Debra; I like how you made the point several times that plain language is better but not always easier to pull off. I’ve been told I should write in shorter simpler sentences. I do now use headers and bullet points or lists where appropriate. and I include images. I wasn’t aware of the 35 word rule or suggestion. looking forward to more of your educational posts, Max

  • Great post, Debra! I agree that plain, simple language takes a lot of thought and care. You have to think about what each word is really saying and how it comes across to your readers. But if a writer can accomplish this, he or she will appeal to the broadest number of people. On your point about the public having low literacy levels, most newspaper articles and Internet writing average between a 6th and 8th grade writing level.

  • Arleen says:
    July 23, 2014 @ 03:18 pm

    In many businesses there are jargon which the public may not know so keeping it in plain language is going to get the attention of your customers. I don’t know how many times I will say to someone, please explain it in plain language. I will also refer to as make it romper room understandable. That was a TV show in the US that targeted preschoolers, children five years of age or younger. So basically when I say that, tell it to me that I can understand. Plain Language

  • I strongly believe in the simplicity of Hemingway’s style. I don’t always achieve that level of clarity but I strive for it. Maybe one day I will use all the big college words so I can sound smart though.

  • Meredith says:
    July 23, 2014 @ 05:40 pm

    I love this. I have a twinge of sadness when I think that some historical and beautiful language is lost on our generation, but when I’m thinking about my blog, you are absolutely on target. People don’t want to dig through a lot of flowery wordiness to understand the meat of your message. Well said.

  • Hi Debra,
    This post is a beauty – it shows how to care for your readers. You’ve made an important point…
    Making people think while they read turns people off. Technical writing can be tedious, but also needs to be made as plain as possible.

    Kind Regards,
    Bill

  • Debra — I highly recommend the best book I’ve ever read about plain writing, — Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” It is still a best seller after 50 years in print. From the section on Omit needless words: instead of “the reason why is that,” use “because.” Available for under $10 from Amazon and worth every penny.

  • I love this post, Debra. I can’t stand reading anything that is written with jargon, fancy, or high-fallutin’ language. Give me plain, any day. I love adverbs and adjectives, though, as I am a highly descriptive person and that is just my personal style of writing. Thx for getting folks thinking about this.

  • I know it’s been said before, but I love this post, Debra. For me the best part is plain is much easier for me to write because I’m dyslexic. So just plain works really well for me. I find if I use ordinary plain words in different and unique ways people find it understandable, approachable and fun to read. 🙂

  • There’s a time and a place for everything as your post so beautifully points out. I love to boil prose down to its barest essence, but I am also very appreciative of the opposite as well 😉

  • I so agree with this approach, even though at times it is tempting to be more wordy or “fancy.” I enjoy a good story or blog that flows well and that I do not have to back up and read again to get the real meaning. And, I love the photo you chose!

  • ballnchainz says:
    July 27, 2014 @ 04:46 pm

    I love simplicity so much and sometimes to a fault. I always think it is hilarious when people try to use big words incorrectly, and if they actually are not writing but saying it out loud it is even funnier. I love your bullet list of things to do. thanks for sharing

  • As so many before me said it, excellent post, Debra – VERY useful and practical.

    I liked how you introduced the “work with a designer” idea when talking about annual reports. It reminded me of another post you wrote a while ago – how drawings can introduce a complex idea and make it very close and easy to understand to your target audience. Plain language is supported so much by the graphics.

    Love the full stop, eh? I have noticed i tend to write long sentences and use complex sentence structures – i suppose it’s a “leftover” from my native language. But now i purposefully work on that and try to bring simplicity into my writing. I like to believe practice makes perfect so… thanks for the great post and the reminder. Will keep on trying 😀

  • Love plain language because it enables the majority of people to understand what you are trying to say. By the way, have been reading a multitude of books about and by Churchill recently. His way of expressing himself and speaking was not plain. But then again, some his writing is one hundred years old. He did not understand how the common people lived and his wife Clementine had to make him understand that it’s not normal to drink Champagne every day. She also pointed out that he had to use plain language when he, for a while, was a Liberal, because his constituents would not understand him otherwise. That’s probably accounts for the quote you found.

    • Ha! I love the insight on Churchill. While he may not have used plain language naturally, at least he had the good sense to take the advice that was given to him to use it.

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