Plain language is an approach to communication that begins with the needs of the reader. When you use plain language:
Unless you write clearly and directly, with the needs of your audience in mind, your readers may be left with more questions than answers.
Difficult texts cause more:
PLAIN LANGUAGE WRITING:
- reaches people who can not read well or who don't have time to read well
- helps all readers understand information
- avoids misunderstandings and errors
- saves time, because it gets the job done well the first time.
Plain language writing focuses on the needs of the reader. Instead of cramming in every bit of information the writer wants to share, the plain writer considers:
Putting the readers' needs first can be hard when you are used to writing from your own perspective. Ask yourself a series of questions that will help you focus your writing and get your message across most effectively.
Who is your audience?
Your document may have only one reader, for example a supervisor. Or, your document may have many readers. For example, they may be employees with different jobs who work in one department, or the general public.
Your audience may be made up of readers of all ages, or of one age group. A pamphlet for, teens for example, may be read by 13 to 19 year olds.
Your document may be read by someone waiting in line or by someone who is annoyed with you. Your reader may be very busy or emotionally upset.
Are you writing only for professionals? Is your document intended for working Canadians, seniors, or members of specific cultural groups? Is English or French their second language? Are their reading skills universally low or high?
Look at the characteristics most of your readers share. Decide on the most important audience for your document. Do some research to find out more about your readers.
An advantage to all this work early on in the writing process is that it can help you clarify how you should distribute your document.
Also remember that your readers are probably less familiar with your subject than you are. Keep this in mind as you write. It will help your decide what the reader needs to know instead of what you want to write.
Why are you writing this document?
Are you writing about something completely new? Give your reader all the background information needed to understand. Try to link the new information to things the reader may already know.
Are you trying to change peoples behavior? Make sure you mention how even small changes can bring benefits that are important to your reader.
Is the document a "how-to" text? Be sure it includes any background information needed to understand your instructions.
It may be hard to single out one purpose. But, a document with one primary focus is more likely to communicate its message effectively.
Here are some examples of the purposes documents can have:What do you want to say
- to report
- to ask
- to inform
- to influence
- to explain
How will your reader use this information?
How people use your document will help you decide how to organize the information in it.
Their department has been undergoing some reorganization. Some people in their sector will be moving to a new sector. Some new people will be joining their sector and some others will be laid off.You have been asked to write a note to staff explaining these changes. How will these characteristics affect what you write?
Clear organized thinking produces clear, logical writing. Some communications problems may be solved by changing words or sentence structure, others involve the way words or thoughts are arranged. The organization of your document is an essential part of conveying your message clearly.
What does your reader most want to know? What is your main message or theme? Decide what information must be included and what can be left out. Then, divide your information into main and secondary points.
Develop a structure for your document that will make it easy and enjoyable to use. For example, chronological order might be the most logical approach for describing procedures.
If people already know something about the subject and you are sharing new information, start with the old, then introduce the new.
If you are describing something completely new, start with general information about the objectives or reasons for the new, then deal with the specifics.
Try including a good table of contents and clear headings throughout the document. In shorter documents, explain how you have organized the information in an "introduction' instead of using a table of contents.
Here are a few ways to organize your information:
- from general to specific
- from specific to general
- from positive to negative
- step by step
- from most important to least important
You have just come from a staff meeting at which people had a heated discussion about some office management problems. You were asked to write a memo to your supervisor right away, telling her about the problems and asking her to come to a meeting with the group. You had some ideas about how the problem could be solved but the other people at the meeting didn't agree with you. You are worried that your supervisor will feel that your group is ganging up against her and that she will come to the meeting angry. You promised to circulate the note to everyone who attended the meeting.How will you organize the information in the memo? Who is your "reader" - your supervisor or your co-workers?
How will your reader understand your organization and what the memo's purpose is?
Words are symbols for what we perceive with our senses. They communicate what we think, feel and do. The more complex the idea or thought, the more difficult it is to express it precisely in words.
Plain language writing emphasizes the use of the clearest words possible to describe actions, objects and people. That often means choosing a two-syllable word over a three-syllable one, an old familiar term instead of the latest bureaucratic expression and sometimes, several clearer words instead of one complicated word.
Your choice of words should be based on what will be clearer for your reader. If you're not sure, ask. Test out your document with some of the people who are likely to use it. To help you draft easy to understand documents, here are some guidelines on your choice of words.
Use Simple, Everyday Words
Use simple, familiar words instead of unfamiliar words.
Write as if someone is asking you what you mean. If you are writing for a diverse audience, sometimes you must be an interpreter as well as a writer.
Here are a few examples of simple words and phrases you might substitute:
in lieu of
send out, distribute
hasten, speed up
make easier, help
work out, devise, form
best, greatest, most
|with regard to
by means of
in the event that
until such time
during such time
in respect of
in view of the fact
on the part of
under the provisions of
with a view to
it would appear that
it is probable that
notwithstanding the fact that
adequate number of
excessive number of
Instead of:Avoid or explain technical words
You will receive reactivation and assistance consistent with your requirements.
You will get the amount of help you need.
If you must use a technical term define it - either by giving a definition or by giving an example.
Glossaries are more difficult to use if they are placed at the end of a book or booklet. Try placing a box defining the words on the same page as where the word is first used.
Instead of:Don't change verbs into nouns
Economic espionage may be defined as the illegal or clandestine acquisition of critical Canadian economic information and technology by foreign governments or their surrogates
-Canadian Security Intelligence Service Public Report, 1992
Economic espionage means foreign governments or their agents illegally obtaining critical Canadian economic and technological secrets.
Instead of:Avoid chains of nouns
The requirement of the department is that employees work seven and one-half hours a day.
The Department requires employees to work seven and one-half hours a day.
You will work on the establishment of goals for the hiring, training and promotion of designated group employees.
You will establish goals for hiring, training and promoting employees from designated groups.
Noun chains take some effort to untangle. They lack connecting words such as of, for, about, in and the possessive,'s, that would clarify how the nouns relate to each other.
Instead of:Choose your words consistently
World population is increasing faster than world food production
The world's population is increasing faster than its food production.
Do not be afraid to repeat the same word or the same idea if it is important.
Use acronyms carefully
Acronyms are formed from the first letter of words which they represent. Remember that not everyone may know what the letters stand for. Put the acronyms in brackets the first time you use the proper term. Then you can use the acronym in the rest of your text.
Some acronyms like U.S.A. or R.C.M.P. may be so well known that they need no explanation.
Because sentences represent ideas, it is the sentence that builds the message for the reader. A clear message requires clear sentences.
Here are some guidelines:Good writers build ideas from sentence to sentence. The simple, declarative sentence is the easiest way to process information. Sentences that differ from that simple structure may cause readability problems.
- Don't overload sentences.
- Use active sentences.
- Keep sentences short.
- Keep sentences simple.
- Avoid ambiguity in your sentences.
- Emphasize the positive.
- Avoid double negatives.
Write in the active voice
If you leave out the subject, the sentences are harder to understand. Using the active voice clarifies the sentence and the readers' understanding.
Instead of:Keep it Short
Citizenship cannot be renounced merely by making a personal declaration to this effect.
You cannot renounce your citizenship merely by making a personal declaration.
In early April, all applications will be reviewed by the committee.
The committee will review all applications in early April.
Instead of:Link your ideas
This policy does not appear to be well understood by line management in the region, even though this group has primary responsibility for implementing the policy.
The regional managers who are most responsible for carrying out this policy do not seem to understand it well.
The parameters of your responsibility are included in the job description you received on your initial day of work at the association.
Your responsibilities are listed in your job description. You received your job description the first day you worked here.
Instead of:Avoid ambiguity
The driver of the truck passing by told the officer in the cruiser the car he saw hit the little girl in the intersection was red.
The driver of the truck told the officer in the cruiser that as he was passing by, he saw a red car hit the little girl in the intersection.
Instead of:Adverbs and adverbial phrases also need to be placed properly to avoid confusion. If improperly placed, the adverbs only, even, both, merely, just, also, mainly, in particular and at least can cause confusion.
Michelle researched and wrote the speech herself, which everyone thought was impressive.
Everyone was impressed with the speech that Michelle researched and wrote herself.
Instead of:Emphasize the Positive
Supervisors and staff are required to both participate in orientation sessions and department seminars.
Supervisors and staff are required to participate both in orientation and in department seminars.
Instead of:However, negative phrasing is appropriate for emphasizing dangers, legal pitfalls, or other warnings. You can also use negative phrasing to allay fears or dispel myths.
If you fail to pass the examination, you will not qualify for admission.
You must pass the examination to qualify for admission..
Avoid double negatives
It isn't enough to remember that a double negative makes a positive. We avoid writing, "I don't know nothing about it," if we mean that we know nothing about it. But, watch out for two or more negative constructions in a sentence.
Instead of:Avoid unnecessary preambles
He was not absent.
The procedure will not be ineffective.
It was never illegitimate.
He was present.
The procedure will be effective.
It was always legitimate.
Here is a list of some unnecessary preambles:
Clear and simple are the goals for paragraphs to make sure you say what you really mean.
Limit each paragraph to one idea unless you are linking related points. If you are comparing old and new, for example, it makes sense to bring them together in one paragraph. Complicated information, or a discussion of several ideas, generally needs to be broken up into separate paragraphs to be easily understood.
Keep it simple
Sometimes you need to use a paragraph instead of just a few sentences to make your message clear. The clearest isn't always the shortest.
Instead of:Another way to break up blocks of information and draw the readers' attention to important elements is to use a question-and-answer format. This will help your reader, find information that is important to them.
Plateauing or career blockage refers to structural barriers to career advancement arising due to a combination of age imbalances and a static or contracting workforce.
"Plateauing" or "career blockage" refers to the lack of opportunities for public servants to be promoted to the executive level. This problem arises because there is a large number of public servants who have many years to work before they retire and because the size of the public service is being reduced. For these reasons there are fewer openings available at higher levels.
A transition is a word, phrase, sentence or paragraph that shows the relationship between two or more parts of your writing. They help your writing move smoothly from idea to idea, sentence to sentence, section to section. Transitions help the reader understand the relationships that are familiar to you.
If you find that you have one or two favourite transition words, you may be trying to compensate for poorly organized text. Use transition words when you need them, but avoid overusing them.
Put parallel ideas in parallel constructions
Whenever a paragraph includes a series of similar items, make sure that all the items are in the same form. Describe each item using similarly constructed phrases. For example, use the same tense for all verbs that describe listed items.
Instead of:Use point form and lists appropriately
Going on vacation?inform a neighbour of your departure...Use:
your neighbour should pick up your newspapers...
small valuables should be stored...
use clock timers that activate lights...
before leaving, ensure all entries are secured...
Going on vacation?inform a neighbour of your departure
have your neighbour pick up newspapers
store small valuables
use clock timers that activate lights
secure all entries before leaving
Here are some guidelines for tabulation:
- The items in the list must form a logical group.
- Each item should contain only one idea.
- Each item should work separately with the lead in to form a complete sentence.
- Put anything common to all items in the lead in.
- Use bullets to identify each item in the list.
- Use numbers instead of bullets only when you are describing step-by-step procedures.
- If bullets are used, all items in the list should begin with a lower case letter.
- Use commas or no punctuation. Put a period after the last item if it is the end of the sentence.
- If the list consists of alternatives, put "or" after the second to last item.
- If the list is inclusive, put "and" after the second to last item.
Exploring the Community
The advantage of this is that its demands are based on day-to-day experience, that its scope is flexible, and that it allows the teacher to gain a full measure of insight into parents' lives. The first task is to explain to students that the community is its people and then to have them list family members and to go home and gather stories and objects which their parents consider to be of special significance. The objects should be displayed and the stories shared. Once this has been done parents should be invited to come and elaborate or to tell new stories themselves. The project can end at this point with family portraits, family trees, family histories, travel journals, biographies etc. It can, however be expanded to take in the entire neighbourhood. In this case, it may culminate in the preparation of street maps, the drawing up of bar graphs (on the relationship between one- and two-story houses in a five-block section, for instance), the making of models of places of interest, the recording of interview with local businessman, the consideration of local concerns, the production of neighbourhood directories or tourist guides. Parents can take part in all these ventures - helping to make contacts for research purposes, accompanying groups or individuals on measuring or sketching expeditions, acting as guides for field trips to churches, synagogues, stores and restaurants, finding materials, giving advice. They can be invited to view work in progress or at the time it is complete.
The way you present information on the page is just as important as the words and sentences you use to present that information. A well written document can be hard to read if it is poorly laid out. How your document looks can make the difference between your message being understood or lost.
Type style and size
Choose a solid, plain typeface which is easy to read. Don't combine more than three different typefaces on the same page because it will give a busy, confusing appearance.
Make sure the typeface is big enough for your readers. Ten point is the minimum size to use. Consider that some people may prefer a larger type size. Twelve point is a good size for most writing.
Don't use all capital letters as they are harder to read.
A serif typeface makes text easier to read because it leads your eye from letter to letter. A sans serif typeface is good for titles because it draws your eye down into the body of the text. Some examples of serif fonts are:
Place all graphics and illustrations as close as possible to the text they refer to. Place them on the page in a way that does not interrupt normal reading patterns.
Make sure all graphics and illustrations are clear and the captions are easy to read. Be wary of using charts to explain information. People with poor math skills can find charts hard to understand.
It is important to get feedback from people who are likely to use your document. We often write documents which are more suitable for ourselves than for our readers. Make sure that you test what you write. Always have someone else read and comment on what you write. If you are preparing documents that will be widely circulated, conduct a field test among people who represent your audience. This process will tell you:
Try field testing
Ask several of the people whom you expect to read the document to assess its value. Ask them if it is something they would enjoy reading, if they would read it and if it makes sense to them. Once you have incorporated their comments, test your document with a larger group. The time and effort spent field testing is worth the effort. Only your readers can tell you if your writing is useful, relevant and readable.
If you use a word processing program to write, try using the available grammar and style software packages to ensure you have followed grammar rules. These grammar check programs can help you spot writing errors such as:
Congratulations on completing the Plain Language Online Training Program! It is now time to disembark from the train. Before you go, consider the following:
Give your friends a souvenir of your trip! Click HERE for the Plain Language Document Checklist that summarizes this training program.
Where is the train heading next? We are considering additional modules on Plain Language Legal Writing, Plain Language and Literacy, and Plain Language in Education. Send us mail on what you would like to see.
And don't forget to send us a letter and tell us how your trip went. Send your comments right at firstname.lastname@example.org.