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Designing with Plain language

Why make information more complicated or difficult to access than it needs to be? Plain language helps keep things nice and simple.

Plain language is designed to communicate things simply and clearly. It doesn't deny the richness of a language, or dumb down content, but it does avoid unnecessary jargon and overly complex or convoluted ways of saying things.

These principles are championed by the Plain English Campaign. We're using the term Plain Language here as the principles apply to all languages.

Benefits of plain language

Readers are more likely to:

  • bother to read clear concise documents than long complex ones
  • understand what you are saying
  • favour organisations that say things clearly.

Information providers benefit because:

  • your message is more likely to be understood and acted upon
  • shorter documents require less paper
  • you can say more in the same space
  • translations into, for example, Braille are cheaper to produce and easier to use.

Guidelines

Before you start writing be clear about:

  • your key messages
  • your audience and what they want and need to know
  • what you want them to do as a result of reading your information
  • the language your audience is likely to be familiar with
  • what information is irrelevant or surplus

Structure

  • Summarise key points at the beginning
  • Start with the most important information your reader needs to know
  • Use clear headings to break up the text into clear chunks
  • For lengthy content, provide a summary

Style

  • Use language your audience will understand.
  • Split your information into short, easily absorbed paragraphs.
  • Keep most sentences around 15-20 words, but don't be too strict on this as a mix of sentence length helps readability.
  • Try to avoid combining too many different ideas in a sentence and paragraph.
  • Be as brief as you can. The clearest sentence order is subject, verb, object. For example: “I use olive oil” is better than “olive oil is what I use” or “olive oil is used by me”.
  • Avoid abbreviations unless they are very familiar, like e.g.
  • Avoid jargon.
  • If you have to use particular words for the sake of accuracy, explain them in the text the first time you use them.
  • Keep punctuation simple and accurate. Many people are confused by semi-colons, colons, square brackets and sloppy or ambiguous use of punctuation.
  • Use direct language and the active rather than passive voice. For example “we will decide” rather than “a decision will be made”.
  • Repeat words rather than using alternatives for the sake of variety and be careful using words like ‘it’, ‘this’ or ‘they’ to refer back to something you have mentioned earlier.
  • Avoid phrases where a single verb will do. For example ‘deliver’ rather than ‘arrange a delivery to’.

These are intended as guidelines and not hard and fast rules. The important thing is to work with your own style to say what you mean to say, in as clear and direct a way as possible. Writing content for website and blogs can be good practice.

Check your writing

There are online reading checks that can help to an extent, for example at Time Tabler. But the best way is to find someone appropriate to read out loud what you have written. We often use phrasing in our written work that, while it looks natural to us on the page, sounds clunky when read aloud. Test everything!

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