The Definitive Plain Language Writing Guide

The Definitive Plain Language Writing Guide (& 10 Sentences Decoded)


This comprehensive plain language writing guide includes a definition, when to use it, tips for using it, and 10 examples of how to write in plain language.

Plain Language Day is celebrated on 13 October each year. We hope you enjoy this post.

The Definitive Plain Language Writing Guide

Language allows us to communicate our ideas and thoughts to others.

Communication is only effective for getting a message across when the message is understood.

As writers, we have many ways of using language. It can communicate, but it can also trigger emotions like sympathy, anger, love, fear, or confusion. This has everything to do with what and how we write.

Plain language is an important skill for the writer’s desk. Many famous authors have written about the importance of writing in plain language.

The use of plain language means the message comes across clearly. There’s less room for misunderstanding, mistranslation, or the need to look up words and sentences in a dictionary or glossary. 

If you want to improve your writing, buy The Complete Grammar Workbook.

Defining ‘Plain Language’

Language is used every day, and everywhere. We use language in fiction, business, signage, casual conversation, and online. 

But we don’t use the same language or tone for everyone.

Plain language is used for any writing that’s meant to be understood by a wide selection of people.

This means that plain language writing is often used for:

  1. Advertisement writing.
  2. Business writing.
  3. Blog writing.
  4. Copywriting.
  5. Email writing.
  6. Instructional writing.
  7. Website content writing. 
  8. Report writing.

It’s useful for many other types of writing, including fiction: the use of plain language is recommended wherever misunderstandings should be avoided.

Simply, plain language is intended to be clear, concise, and to-the-point.

When To Use Plain Language 

Why do we understand the backs of cereal boxes and TV ads? Why are writers like Stephen King or James Patterson still read by millions of people whose first language isn’t necessarily English?

The answer is plain language.

Why do we sometimes struggle to understand legal contracts, terms & conditions, or extensive handbooks?

This time, the answer is a lack of plain language.

A lack of plain language can be an accidental, but it can also be deliberate (for example, complicated legal documents). Work on your ability to write without flair just as much as with.

Unsure when it’s appropriate? Ask if the text has to be widely understood by those who read it. (If yes, use plain language writing.)

Readership can include non-native English speakers, or readers who might not understand specific industry jargon. Readership can also include people who simply don’t have time to decode highbrow, fancy language.

What Plain Language Is

Plain language is preferred when you are writing to be understood.

When writing in plain language, you should:

  1. Keep sentences and paragraphs short.
  2. Use simple, understandable language.
  3. Remain in the active voice.
  4. Produce readable writing. (Your readability statistics should be 70% or higher.)
  5. Avoid jargon, technical terms, or industry language.
  6. Always avoid double-meanings or misunderstandings. 

Plain language is never complicated, technical, patronising, or hard to read. That’s the point of it. 

10 Plain Tips For Plain Language Writing

If you would like to get your writing to plain language levels faster, follow these tips to approach the writing or editing process:

1. Short Sentences Are Best

Do you prefer it when all of the sentences that you read look like this, and contain as many words as the writer is able to cram into one single sentence – and by the end of it, you’re not sure what it said at the start?

Or: do you prefer short sentences?

Exactly.

Stick to short sentences.

2. No Overcomplicated Structure.

When viewed on a page, writing should be broken into segments. Walls of text (for example, many Facebook comments) are bulky and difficult to read.

People skim over large, chunky paragraphs. Make sure there is plenty of white space. 

For plain language writing, make sure the text itself reads easy. 

3. Avoid ‘Highbrow’ Language

‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’ ~Leonardo da Vinci

‘Highbrow’ language uses words that speak down to the reader, or words that are deliberately meant to make the writer seem like an intellectual wizard (but doesn’t).

Avoid trying to make your language seem fancy for plain language writing.

4. Use Less Jargon

Jargon usually refers to terms that only a specific group (for example, bridge players or engineers) would understand.

Cut jargon and industry terms from any plain language writing when possible. Explain terms briefly where it’s absolutely relevant to the text being understood. 

5. Check for Double Meanings

Plain language leaves no room for double meanings or misunderstandings. Often, potentially emotive text or overly descriptive words are left out entirely to avoid any confusion for the reader.

6. Explain (When Necessary)

Some writing requires technical terms, but explained in plain language instead. An explanation (such as in brackets) can sometimes do the job, but really technical writing might require asking an expert to explain it in layman’s terms first.

7. Keep Figures & Statistics Simple

Plain language writing should never overwhelm the reader with figures or statistics. Numbers are useful when necessary, but stacking too many of them in the same text turns your writing into a technical report.

8. Reject Complex Words & Phrases

‘Use the smallest word that does the job.’ ~E.B. White

Complex words and phrases don’t belong in plain language writing. It slows down the reader’s eye for no purpose. It can even confuse the meaning of an entire text.

There’s always a plain language synonym for saying the same thing. Read: 93 Ways To Simplify Your Writing.

9. Be Careful Of Being Too Plain

Plain language writing assumes that the reader has a need for concise, easy-reading text: but it never assumes that the reader is an idiot.

It can be easy to push plain language writing into too simple writing.

Always make sure you’re not over the simplicity cliff, regardless of the demographic or age you’re writing for.

10. Edit For Plain Language

Writers write, but also edit.

When editing text into plain language writing, seek out synonyms, cut out jargon, and structure text to be easier to take in.

Then read again (and repeat).

If you want to improve your writing, buy The Complete Grammar Workbook.

10 Sentences Decoded 

Example 1:

Don’t say: The weekly report from page 5 to 7 contains all the essential information that management needs to read in order to make clear decisions. 
Say: Management must read the weekly report from page 5 to 7 to make decisions.

Avoid the use of unnecessary text. Instead, just say what you have to say to get the message across.

Example 2:

Don’t say: You are cordially invited to attend the following online meeting for writers.
Say: Please join our online writing seminar.

Don’t get fancy for plain language, especially if you’re promoting something. There’s no need for it.

Example 3:

Don’t say: Statistics say that 3, 000 writers out of every 10, 000 happen to attend writing conferences.
Say: 30% of writers attend writing conferences.

Figures and statistics tie up plain language. Where possible, simplify.

Example 4:

Don’t say: SARS seized their assets on Tuesday morning. 
Say: SARS (the South African Revenue Service) seized their assets on Tuesday morning.

Define acronyms and specific terms for plain language writing. 

Example 5:

Don’t say: Visiting players are welcome to kibitz games on Wednesdays.
Say: Visiting bridge players are welcome to watch games on Wednesdays.

Jargon that means nothing to people on the outside should be avoided.

Example 6:

Don’t say: He was standing next to it. 
Say: Joe was standing next to the box.

Plain language writing is never vague. Always define who and what you are referring to when it might be unclear.

Example 7: 

Don’t say: He said ‘Open Sesame’, and the door opened.
Say: He said the magic words ‘Open Sesame’, and the door opened.

English readers are familiar with the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but readers with other languages as a first would not necessarily recognise the above as ‘magic words’ at all.

Omit or clarify where confusion (due to language-specifics or international readers) can happen.

Example 8:

Don’t say: The recipe needs pepper.
Say: The recipe needs diced red peppers.

Misunderstandings are easier than you imagine. The first sentence might have made the reader add black peppercorns, which sounds like the same thing, but isn’t. (Again, plain language text clarifies, not confuses.)

Example 9:

Don’t say: Steep the chosen vegetables in a suspended solution of water and salt for a period of approximately twenty minutes.
Say: Boil the potatoes in salted water for 20 minutes.

Plain language writing is brief and clear.

Example 10:

Don’t say: The movie was good.
Say: The movie was excellent.

Plain language writing should never be too simplified. If it is too simple, it talks down to your readership.

If you want to improve your writing, buy The Complete Grammar Workbook.

 By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.

If you enjoyed this, read his other posts:

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  3. 10 Bits Of Writing Advice From Stephen King
  4. The Essential Copywriting Crash Course
  5. Everything You Need To Know About Business Writing
  6. About Essays (& How To Write A Great One)
  7. From Full-Time To Freelance Writing: Ways To Cope
  8. 9 Practical Tips For Being A Faster Writer
  9. 6 Ways Bridge Can Make You A Better Writer
  10. Invaluable Safety Tips For Journalists

Top Tip: Find out more about our online courses and workbooks in our shop.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Robert

    I appreciate and value the simplified language structures and Conventions of writing pieces. Thanks

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