WordnerderySue Horner’s monthly tips on words and ways to reach readers – October 2023
Issue 128 – October 2023
Plain language keeps it clear
The super power of plain language? Helping your readers find what they need, understand what they find and use what they find to meet their needs.
Back when the world was still coming to grips with the pandemic, helping people understand information took on new urgency. Where could we find the latest news? How could we stay safe? And how far apart was six feet anyway?
You could argue that today’s state of the world means helping people understand is even more urgent. So to mark International Plain Language Day (Oct. 13), here’s a closer look at plain language.
“The way we communicate can save lives or make them harder,” said the Center for Plain Language on Plain Language Day in 2020. That year, they noted, was an opportunity to help with what people needed to know about COVID-19.
But in a report card they gave 20 U.S. government agencies, they found that, oops, their websites were “too focused on the agency, not the public.” Information was hard to find in long lists with vague headlines. The word “you” was also scarce.
How to fix it? The super power of plain language is bringing together words, structure and design so your readers can:
Find what they need
Understand what they find the first time they read it
Use what they find to meet their needs.
To help you write in plain language:
Look at the structure
Decide what point you’re trying to make. Start with that in mind.
Think about your readers. What do they already know? What do they need to know?
Put the most important information first. Background, if needed, can come later.
Think about the questions readers might have and make sure you answer them.
Break separate thoughts into separate sentences.
Break paragraphs into fewer sentences, averaging just two or three.
Tighten and shorten sentences. Aim for an average of 14 words per sentence, which results in 90-99% understanding, according to the American Press Institute. A sentence of 28 words will be understood by only 50-59% of readers.
Use subheadings or bullet points to organize the information and break up lengthy, confusing sections.
Include charts, graphs or illustrations if needed to make a point clear.
Choose your words
Shorten and simplify words, aiming for one or two syllables (“use” vs. “utilize,” “about” vs. “approximately”).
Pick familiar words. “Mild side effects” vs. “adverse side effects,” “agree to” vs. “acquiesce.”
Don’t bury verbs with suffixes like -ion, -ment, -ance and -ize. “Provides” vs. “makes provision for,” “Comply with” vs. “be in compliance with.”
Avoid jargon. No writing is improved when it’s sprinkled with words like incentivize, ideate, win-win and leverage.
Write to the reader ("you").
Use active vs. passive writing. “Send your complaints” vs. “Complaints should be submitted.”
Cut out unnecessary words. “Now” vs. “at this point in time,” “after” vs. “subsequent to.”
One of the best ways to check how you’re doing is to copy and paste your text into an online readability checker. Here are some I’ve used: