Nearly everyone writes at one time or another. We just don’t always realize that the work we’re doing can be categorized as writing.
You’re working on letters or emails, contracts or customer notices, not on stories or books. You’re not a writer and you don’t claim to be. But you still write.
That’s where plain language comes in.
It’s becoming an increasingly more popular topic in the business world. In government, plain language is becoming policy and law.
What is plain language?
Writing in plain language is writing for your reader.
Text written in plain language is clear and easy to understand and use. It uses words, sentences, and structures that can be quickly understood by its audience.
“Plain language is a technique of organizing information in ways that make sense to the reader, and thinking about your reader first and foremost and using language that is appropriate for your audience’s reading skills.” – Cathy Chapman, former Director of the National Literacy Secretariat in Canada, as quoted by Plain Language Association International (PLAIN).
Plain language is:
- straight to the point
- simple, short sentences
- familiar words
- void of jargon
- suited for its audience
Why is plain language important?
Our world is becoming more and more global. Technology makes it easy to connect and do business with people all over the world. It is also making it easier for people to move around the world.
Fifty-one percent of the population of Toronto was not born in Canada. The populations of Vancouver and Calgary are also growing quickly with immigrants from around the world. More than 75% of the immigrant population in Canada has a language other than English as their mother tongue.
I’ve worked with non-profit organizations that serve populations of immigrants. I’ve been witness to a fourth grader translating a document to his mother about the fees owed for services like swimming lessons because the text is above her rudimentary understanding of English. We had to rewrite those documents with this fourth grader and his mom in mind so they could both understand the text.
Our world is permeated with a constant stream of information. If your website or document isn’t easy to understand, your audience will go somewhere else for their information.
The language you use and the way you organize it needs to make sense to your readers, especially in business writing.
If I’m reading a novel, I will gladly look up a word here or there to expand my vocabulary. If I’m reading a website that showed up in my Google search results, I’m less likely to spend a lot of time deciphering it because I want the information not the vocabulary lesson. I’ll look somewhere else for that information.
Jargon has selective uses.
I recently worked with some engineers on a report for their customers. Words like viscosity and turbidity appeared along with lengthy, complex sentences. Those words and structures make sense to engineers and are fine in a report to their colleagues. But when writing for their customers, for the average person walking down the street, they mean nothing.
Jargon is like that. It has a place where it’s useful and expected. But it needs to be translated when the information is being shared outside of that environment.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to work with graduate students preparing for a Three Minute Thesis competition. This speaking competition is a chance for grad students to practice explaining their research to potential funders. They have three minutes and one static slide to explain what their research is and why someone should care about it.
During initial practice sessions, the students gave long-winded speeches full of jargon and information about their research methods. They’d been rehearsing with their research groups and had received great feedback from other students in their field. When I started asking them about the jargon I was able to see the light bulbs turn on.
“What does that word mean?” I would ask. More often than not, the answer would be something like stop, or grow, or change colour. So I would ask, “Why can’t you just say stop?” They would look at me, unsure, and say, “I didn’t know I was allowed to.”
The second half of their plain language training was their structure and the kind of information they were giving. In their peer groups, the methodology was key, not the reasons for the research or potential outcomes. For funders and the general public, the reason, the question of “why should I care” was most important. Again, the students needed to be refocused on their audience.
When a writer (or speaker) uses jargon and focuses on the wrong aspect of the information, they alienate their audience. What does your audience want to know? How can you give it to them in a way they will understand?
Using plain language in your writing–whether business or creative–builds trust and understanding between you and your readers.
Whether your reader is a native or non-native speaker of English, plain language gets your message across and answers their questions quickly. It’s really a win-win.
Write for your audience
I love this topic. Why? Because I’ve finally found policies that reinforce my mantra–Why use a complicated word when a simple one will do?
This doesn’t mean you should never use those longer, more complex words. For many audiences they work wonderfully. They are, after all, beautiful aspects of the English language that often seem to be falling by the wayside.
It does mean write for your audience. If your audience knows and appreciates the complex structures of the English language, write for them in that way. If they don’t, write for them in a way they’ll appreciate.
Plain language removes the hurdle that many of us were placed against in school. We’ve gotten so used to having to use the thesaurus and add in as many howevers and therefores into our text as possible to make sure we sound intelligent to our readers.
Plain language frees us to write the way we speak, to write the words we use every day in our conversations with our neighbours and our family and friends. It opens the door to honest and real conversation.
If you want to learn more, The Center for Plain Langauge has a 5 Step Checklist for communicating effectively in plain language.