Plain language zealots

Why I am a plain language zealot

Writing

We write in plain language to convey messages that are clear, concise and effective.

Training

We teach people the techniques and thinking behind plain language writing.

Certifying

We test and certify documents to prove they are suitable for readers and likely to achieve purpose.

Our plain language principles:

1. Clear writing can only come from clear thinking

Thinking well and writing well are closely related. Writing is a creative, organising, defining activity that makes thinking clear and precise.

2. A writer’s job is to serve their readers

The reader is at the centre of a writer’s activities. Writers must work hard to make it easy for readers to find the information they need, understand what is written, and use the information.

3. Businesses and governments produce ‘functional documents’

Functional documents are written to achieve an organisation’s purpose. They are communication assets that must be crafted to perform – just like any other asset.

4. Functional documents (information products) must be written plainly

Difficult to read and unclear documents cannot be acted on properly. Not writing plainly can cause social disadvantage. It can also put the document owner at risk.

5. Information products should be tested

Like any product, information products should be tested to make sure they work well. Publishing a document without testing may be reckless – see recklesswriting.org.

 

What we mean by plain language writing

Plain language writing focuses on readers and how they respond to a document (a document is anything that uses words – printed or web text). The aim is to make documents clear, concise and effective (by effective, we mean ‘achieves purpose’). We consider how the reader will encounter the document and how the document owner would like them to respond.

We see documents as communication or information products, and so often incorporate user testing before publishing. Just as we would for any other type of product.

We aim to craft communication products that are:

  • useful – documents that provide information that users (readers) want; content that they can do something with
  • usable – users can easily find the information they need. And when they find it, they can easily understand and use it.
  • desirable – documents should also be attractive and a pleasure to use.

To achieve these goals, we use various plain language techniques. For example, we use familiar words, craft short single point sentences, and prefer the active voice over the passive. We also structure the document well and in a way that makes good sense to users. A ‘point first’ structure that places the most important content at the start of the document is usually best. We also provide ‘talking headings’ to help the reader quickly scan the document.

Plain language writing is not ‘dumbing down’. It is simply writing in a straightforward way so that readers can understand the message quickly and easily.

In some ways, plain language writing is like looking through a shop window. When you look through a shop window, you don’t notice the glass – you are looking at the goods behind the glass. In the same way, readers should be interacting with the ideas in your document. They should not have to struggle with the word you use or the way you have put them together.

 

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