What is plain writing or plain language?
It may be easier to start with what plain writing is not. Plain writing is not simplifying all your documents to a certain reading level. It is also not a call to write condescendingly or provide a single format for all documents.
Plain writing is a method of creating documents that meet the needs of specific readers. Those documents then prompt the readers to take certain actions. As people tend to scan documents for specific information, using plain writing is a way to respect their time by making it easier for them to find what they need.
Why should I use plain writing?
If you are writing a government document that prompts people to action, you’re required to use plain writing by law. If you’re not legally obligated to use plain writing, I recommend you use it because it makes your document easier to read. Plain writing guidelines can help you write documents that better communicate your message.
Poor communication wastes time and costs money. If your document clearly directs the reader to specific actions, you can avoid additional explanation and error-filled forms. If you need something from the reader of a document, use the document to help them know exactly what you require from them.
What are the key elements of plain writing?
There are several elements of plain writing, but I have summarized a few that will most impact the usability of your documents.
Write for the reader
Sometimes in technical documents, we say to write for the end user of the document. This is the same concept. Know who you intend to read the document and write to answer their questions and prompt them to act. Address the reader directly as “you” when needed, rather than using “the user” or “the applicant.”
Use descriptive headings
One key aspect of plain writing is using descriptive headings. Since readers are likely to scan your document to find the information they need, clear headings make it easier for them. Rather than having a short two-word statement, use a more precise description, or use a question.
Ignore outdated rules
Some “rules” about business writing are outdated and do not help readers find the information they need. For example, you don’t have to avoid using contractions or beginning with a conjunction. And you should avoid using a plethora of related words to make your point. Find a single word that means what you intend, and avoid introducing variation without reason. For example, if you write about lawyers, use the word “lawyer” each time and avoid using other words like “attorneys” and “legal representatives” where the meaning is the same.
How does plain writing influence document organization?
Plain writing includes all aspects of the document, including its structure or organization. The main point of your document, or your call to action should be first. Organize the sections or headings of your document based on importance to the reader. Place key information about what the reader needs to do before details they may need to know.
There are cases where a warning statement (knowledge) needs to go before an action, like in a high-hazard procedure. But when writing an informational brochure or report, you should prioritize informing your reader about what they need to do over background details. You may also need to delete sections that contain good information but are not relevant to your intended reader.
Structure your document with scannable features, like:
- Bulleted or numbered lists
Using tables to compare information makes it easy for readers to find what they need without searching through paragraphs with repeated phrases.
How can I use plain writing in my documents?
Start your document planning with a list of questions the reader or readers want answered. If you begin your document with the reader in mind, you are more likely to create a document that is helpful to the reader, which is the focus of plain writing. Other helpful tips include:
- Write short sentences with clear topics.
- Delete extra words or phrases.
- Use active voice.
- Avoid using jargon or unfamiliar abbreviations.
Where do I go for more information?
Go to https://plainlanguage.gov for more helpful information about plain writing. Many government organizations also have specific information about how they use plain language on their individual websites.
We can edit your documents to communicate clearly and prompt readers to action. Contact us today to learn how working with us can improve your forms, procedures, and other documents.