Plain language

February 21, 2013

“Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.” – Cicero

This is the basis of Plain Language.  The goal is to write documents (emails, web pages, manuals, proposals, etc) in an everyday language, without waffle, jargon, or ambiguity, so that the reader can easily find and understand the information they need.  Since 2010, it’s the law that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”  Sounds like common sense, right?  It’s easier said than done though, so here are a few of the plain language guidelines to think about:

Know your audience

One size does not fit all.  Know your audience and write your document using language that they will understand.  In some cases it’s good to start by explaining why and how your document will be useful to them.  Think about how much knowledge they already have on the subject and what questions they could have.  This will help you to organize your document.

Organize your document

Structure your document so that people can quickly find the information that they need.  One way to do this is to think of the most common questions a reader might have and use that as your outline.  Use short but descriptive headings to guide your audience to their goal.  Questions can be the most useful headings.  If your document has the need for sub-sections, try not to go more than three levels deep.

Use language that works

These are just a handful of the many suggestions on how to write clearly.

*Write in the active voice.  *** The active voice will make sentences clearer and prevent them from becoming too wordy.
(Passive) The mat was sat on by the cat.
(Active) The cat sat on the mat.

Watch out for hidden verbs.
The team will carry out a review of the requirements.

Use pronouns to speak directly to readers.  This will create a more personal experience for the reader.
(Personal) You will get a confirmation email by the end of the day.
(Impersonal) A confirmation email will be sent by the end of the day.

Use short, simple words.
Use not utilize
Count not enumerate
Help not facilitate

Omit unnecessary words.
Monthly not on a monthly basis
Now not at this point in time

**Avoid meaningless formal language.
**I will touch base with you for some value added strategic planning so that we can have cutting edge quality solutions!  Enough said.

**Define uncommon words where you use them.  **If your reader has to click off the page or search in the back of the document for a definition of the word, you are making them do work.

**Use lists, tables, illustrations and examples.  **Whenever you are presenting complex information.

***“I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.” ***– Barbossa aims to confuse

Test it

Testing can be as simple as asking one or more people to read (part of) your document and then asking them a few questions about it to figure out if they understood it in the way that you intended.  This is called paraphrase testing and works best for short documents.  Usability testing is another way to get feedback on how well your document is written.  This involves asking test participants questions about the document and then observing them as they search for the answers.

I try to incorporate plain language into my daily life.  In emails, product reviews, blogging.  If I’m reading a technical book or product manual, I’m as intolerant of waffle words as I am of poor page layout.  I see it as elegant rather than simple. Oh, and ever since I started this post I’ve been itching to reduce the Cicero quote by four words to “Every unnecessary word pours over the side of a brimming mind.”