Your guide to communicating clearly and effectively with plain language
Make your reader’s life easier by writing in plain language
As a writer — no matter what medium or subject you’re working with — one of your most important jobs is to make the reader’s life easier.
You’re not working on High School English Literature essays anymore where verbosity might be encouraged, or even rewarded. If you’re creating digital content, you’re writing for a highly diverse audience that has a highly limited attention span.
Even if you have a target audience in mind, there’s no knowing for certain what knowledge your readership holds regarding your topic. Don’t punish them by using confusing words or crafting complex sentences. Keep it simple. Use plain language.
What’s plain language?
Plain language is a writing technique that prioritizes simple words and straightforward sentence structures. It’s not just about the words you choose, but your overall ability to communicate with them and present your content clearly.
While plain language became legally mandatory for government agencies’ official websites, it has also become the universal norm across most industries who are communicating with a general audience.
Plain language isn’t used to “dumb down” content, but rather to make content more widely accessible and easier for readers to consume. You don’t need big words and long sentences to make you sound smart — that’ll actually make your content more difficult to read and understand.
Your audience should be able to understand what you’re saying the first time they read your content. If they’re initially confused, odds are they’ll exit the page rather than spend time trying to decode your message.
But hey, don’t let the terminology fool you: plain language doesn’t mean plain content. Your creativity can — and should — still shine through. In a sea of poorly written and complex content, your content will float to the top when you follow plain language guidelines.
Plain language isn’t:
- Leaving out necessary technical terms
- Writing in a patronizing or condescending tone
- Over-explaining every little thing
- “Dumbing down” content
- Leaving out any descriptive language
Plain language is:
- Explaining necessary, but confusing, terms or jargon
- Simplifying words and ideas for a general audience
- Making content clear the first time it’s read
- Using common, everyday words
- Anything but plain
Plain language guidelines and tips
In short, you should always aim for clarity, readability, and brevity. Long, flowing sentences and the passive voice can occasionally be useful, but they shouldn’t have a large presence in your content.
Before you even begin the writing process, take a step back and make sure you’re aware of what message you want to get across.
Summarize your main point first.
Tell readers at the start what you want them to know, and then expand on that point. If readers can’t see where the content is going from a quick skim, they’ll move on or, worse, not get the information they need.
You have limited time to convey what you mean. Our attention spans are short, and your sentences should be, too. Aim for sentences with no more than 25 words and paragraphs of five sentences or fewer. Simple, short sentences are your best friend here.
Use headings and create lists.
Breaking up content into easily digestible chunks will help you keep readers engaged and allow them to quickly find the content they’re looking for.
Cut the jargon.
Be consistent when using naming conventions — particularly if you’re using unique spelling or punctuation. If you’re not sure who your audience is, don’t assume what they understand.
Use the active voice.
Writing in the active voice will make your sentences shorter and easier to understand. Favor it over the passive voice whenever possible.
White space improves readability. Organize text in PDFs and flyers into two columns to prevent readers from feeling overwhelmed by a wall of text.
Use first and second person.
Don’t be afraid to get personal, your audience is more likely to connect with first or second person over a third person writing style that can sometimes seem too informational or formal. Use personal pronouns.
Write with your reader in mind.
At the end of the day, you’re writing with the knowledge that someone else is going to be reading that writing. Keep the reader in mind and make sure you’re writing for them — it’ll help you accomplish all of the above.
When your message is clear, you’ll gain a sense of trust and credibility from your readers that would be lacking otherwise. And speaking of making things clear, leave the big, technical terms at home when smaller, everyday words do the same job.
You don’t have to simply take it from us — Mark Twain says it best: “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
So try ‘use’ over ‘utilize,’ ‘more than’ over ‘in excess of’, and ‘sad’ over ‘lugubrious.’ You get the idea.
If you haven’t already, make sure you’ve looked into terminology management so your team has concrete guidelines on what terms to use or avoid. It’s a great way to ensure inclusivity and consistency.
|Instead of this||Try this|
|Has a requirement for||Needs|
|It is expected||We expect|
|Afford an opportunity||Allow|
|In excess of||More than|
|Fill out a form||Apply|
|Hand in hand||Together|
Why is it important to write in plain language?
Plain language guidelines help make sure the text complements — rather than detracts from — the overall experience. No one has ever complained because they’ve found something helpful and it was too easy to read or to understand.
It helps you retain your audience.
While website copy is only one component of your site, it’s the one that tells visitors the most about your company and team. Poorly-written, overly-complex, mistake-filled copy won’t reflect well on your brand. Just as you proof all of your writing for grammar and spelling, you should be proofing it for clarity as well.
By using plain language, creators can make a website layout, in-app experience, or piece of standalone content more attractive. Given that 38% of people would leave a site if they find its content or layout unattractive, this is a pretty big deal. Poor online experiences cost companies millions in lost revenue each year, and bad experiences tend to outweigh the good ones.
It helps you build trust and connect with your audience.
Clear writing helps you build trust with your audience. Content that’s difficult to understand will alienate audiences while clear content will keep them coming back. According to Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer Report, an easily understood “Terms & Conditions” statement increases consumer trust more than any other factor.
By putting plain English principles into practice, writers will be able to connect with more audiences. People who lack insider knowledge or don’t speak English as a first language will have poor experiences if they’re struggling to understand your jargon. Plain language ensures your content is accessible for every audience.
Equally important, you’ll connect with people who are crunched for time and therefore skimming — and in the modern world, that’s all of us.
It helps you reach your target audience.
But your content doesn’t need to be easily understood by everyone. It just needs to be easy for your audience to understand, and plain language guidelines support that. So if you know your audience members are familiar with some niche terms or jargon that make your content more concise, use them. No need to write “trying to access more money than you have available in your bank account” if you’re sure your audience will understand “overdraft”.
Plain language guidelines weren’t developed to suck the creativity out of content creation. In fact, they exist to make sure that creative content is more accessible and more shareable.
It benefits everyone (internally and externally).
Modern customers demand authenticity from brands. Useful, understandable content always feels more authentic than complex, ambiguous communication.
Likewise, employees expect transparency and honesty from all internal communications. Messaging grounded in plain language can result in a happier, more productive workforce.
Adhering to plain language guidelines across all your content is good for your audience and your team. It helps your message come across the way you intended. It shows readers that you respect the time and energy they’ve given you. It can help you empathize with customers. And it should help you feel confident that your end users can achieve their goals.
How to make sure your plain language is working
Concise writing isn’t always easy, but it’s worthwhile. Even the most experienced writers need this reminder, which is why a style guide can be a useful document to have around.
But from there, how can you make sure your plain language strategy is working?
The first step is to regularly test content to see if it’s effective and easily understandable.
You can perform internal tests to see whether your team is grasping the key message you’re trying to convey in individual content pieces. If your colleagues struggle to understand your content, that’s not a good sign. It means any external audience won’t understand it either. Use that feedback to adjust your messaging until your internal teams give it the green light and go from there.
A usability test will give you a more accurate assessment of how well audiences understand your writing. Find testers who are similar to your target audience. Then, create task scenarios that ask them to apply the knowledge they’ve gained from reading your content. For UX teams, see whether they can complete workflows and accomplish the goals you set for them when designing a website or software.
Several tools exist to help you perform this type of test. A platform like SurveyMonkey can even create something similar. External testing services will allow you to get feedback on the mechanics of your application, your designs, and the copy. If testers don’t understand your content, revisit your plain language principles.
You can also run a Cloze test: remove certain words from your copy and ask test-takers to fill them in. This test helps determine whether your copy provides readers with enough context to get a good enough understanding of your message.
Example of a Cloze test for a fictional fact-checking company called True.ly
Using Writer to communicate in plain language
Writer helps companies craft their content guidelines and then align all their writers to meet those goals. It makes it easier to keep content produced throughout the company consistent, on brand, and — most importantly — clear.
Writer uses natural language processing to help folks in your company adhere to your content guidelines in anything they write and wherever they’re writing. The AI gives real-time feedback, all based on your company’s style guide and terminology — including how to convert complex writing to plain language.
Once you set up your company style guide in Writer, everyone who has access can use it to quickly review each piece of content.
Writer gives suggestions to help writers:
- Follow plain language guidelines, e.g.
- Turn passive phrases into active voice
- Shorten lengthy sentences
- Simplify complex sentences
- Adjust word choice to improve clarity and readability
- Use your brand voice
- Keep grammar, spelling, and punctuation consistent
- Replace biased language
- Remove plagiarized language
- Update outdated messaging or terminology
- Follow relevant legal requirements
Illustration by Natalie Nelson