Plain Language Writing - A Complete Guide

The world is ever-changing and moving forward with the times. As accessibility becomes more of a focus within big companies and individuals alike, finding methods and styles to make communications and instructions easier is becoming more and more important. That's where plain language writing comes in; a simpler, more accessible way to communicate the written word.

What Is Plain Language Writing?

So let's start at the beginning; What is plain language writing? In its most abbreviated form, plain language writing is a form of writing that conveys information as clearly and concisely as possible, with little ambiguity and without disrupting meaning. Plain language is a way of presenting a subject that helps the intended audience understand it the first time they read it, which for big or small businesses is ideal as it eliminates confusion. Using plain language helps you to communicate well to clients, customers, and general members of the public and give them what they want: information that is accessible and easy to understand.

Plain language is direct and often does not try to complicate things with jargon or large, unnecessary words. In a 2012 study by Christopher Trudeau, from the Thomas Cooley Law School at the Western Michigan University in the USA, it was found that 'the more educated the person and the more specialist their knowledge, the more they preferred plain language.' The conclusion of this study was a simple one; just because people have the time to read or the intelligence to understand denser text doesn't mean they want to read a particular way. Plain text is more efficient, faster, and generally more accessible, which leads us to why it's so important.

Why Is Plain Language Writing Important?

We have spoken about what plain language writing is, but why it's important is something that is constantly changing with the progression of time. In the last ten years, most major companies have started to increase their accessibility, whether that be for gaming products, audiobooks, interactive technology, or smart searches. Plain language is another tool for accessibility that should be adopted pretty much immediately if you deal with text or writing of any sort.

When we talk about accessibility, our first thoughts probably go towards braille for the blind, ramps for wheelchair users, sign language for the deaf, but what is the equivalent we make for those who are cognitively challenged, with dyslexia, or dyspraxia. Plain language eliminates the noise and bulk around instructions, recipes, and general 'need to know' written text. Sara Luterman, an award-winning disability policy, and political journalist, once said, 'I tend to describe my plain language work as more accessible rather than accessible period — It still might not work for some people,' a good distinction to make as we move into examples of plain language writing.

Examples Of Plain Language Writing

Here is some plain language in action:

- 'I wished to demonstrate my impressive strength and vigor to my new teammates.'

Now simplified, you could say,

- 'I want to show my strength and passion to my teammates.' 

Another example.

- 'After a long and arduous day, Blake slipped into a warming bath and soaked his aching feet.'

Again, simplified, 

- 'After a hard day, Blake took a warm bath to soak his sore feet.'

Simplifying language doesn't just make these sentences more accessible, but they also convey the message more rapidly. Getting your message across easily is perfect for businesses, especially for the advertising and copy sectors. In an increasingly globalized world, simple is often better.

Here are some single-word examples,

Complex  Plain

Endeavor - Try

Feasible - Workable

Inception - Start

Liaison - Discussion

Modify - Change

Proceed - Go

Reside - Live

A larger list of useful words can be found here.

Applications Of Plain Language Writing

Now, as anyone who's done their taxes or medical records will know, jargon can ruin any day. There are still many sectors that use outdated, overly complex, and frankly useless language. This is doubly frustrating when this kind of language is found around matters such as banking and healthcare. 

Plain Language is for EVERYONE, even professionals of the written word. There is a long-held idea that more complex wording and structure displays professionalism or intelligence. Not true. Plain language will often give you better SEO results. For advertisers, Plain Language will help the message seem more friendly and understandable. Corporations can seem more approachable, helping their brand and PR relations. 

Social media, a tool used by billions, is often capped by characters.  Plain Language allows the user, be they a person or business, to convey information easier. Using Plain Language also helps de-mystify and depoliticize language, something more useful than ever in an age of misinformation and content fatigue.

It's clear that Plain Language saves money, increases efficiency, and reduces the need for clarification. Imagine the employee hours spent correcting mistakes from incorrectly filled forms and emails when language has confused those who sent it. Outside of creative writing there aren't many situations where the use of Plain Language isn't an advantage. Information is power.

Conclusion

Language and communication is a universal right. It's how we express ourselves the most, and it should be accessible and approachable for all. Plain Language gives those of all backgrounds the opportunity to understand the world around them and join the conversation. It's an area of accessibility too long ignored, but one that could easily be fixed and result in huge benefits.

About the Author

Casey Wise

Casey Wise is a British journalist, creative copywriter, and music creator with a deep passion for language, travel, and technology. Based in Barcelona, his work extends from local start-ups and newspapers to university radio and the British NHS.