Tip #783:  How to Write Plain Language

“The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.” Hippocrates

“The shorter and the plainer the better.” Beatrix Potter

Plain language is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. We Government regulations, legal documents and all the documents involved in buying a home are usually very complex. Wouldn’t it be nice if these were written so that we could easily understand them?

Not long ago, a marketing expert noted that the language I use to explain my thoughts is at an academic level. Or, in plain language, I write highbrow. I was surprised. It had never occurred to me that my writing was unnecessarily dense.

A recent webinar by Patti Shank provided clear guidelines for plain language. She identified five tactics:

1. Test readability. Readability is how easy it is for someone to understand the written text. Flesch Reading Ease measures how complex a text is. The lower the score, the more difficult the text is to read.

The Flesch readability score uses the average length of your sentences (measured by the number of words) and the average number of syllables per word in an equation to calculate the reading ease. The score between 60 and 70 is largely considered acceptable (US 8th to 9th -grade level).

You can use a free Flesch Reading Ease Calculator to grade your text at http://www.readabilityformulas.com/free-readability-formula-tests.php

2. Write concisely. Ms. Shank’s top tactics include: (a) use short, more familiar words than longer, less familiar words; (b) remove unnecessary words, modifiers, and obvious details. (c) replace: it is, there is/are, here is/are; and (d) remove empty words and phrases, such as: really, basically, apparently, essentially, virtually, in my opinion, I think that, very, in some ways, for all intents and purposes, and as I said earlier.

You can find a plain language word replacement list at https://multco.us/file/46697/download

3. Reduce sentence length. She suggests that we: (a) keep sentence length at 25 words or less; (b) use a mix of short, medium and longer (but not too- long) sentences; (c) break too-long sentences into two (or more) sentences; and (d) fix too-short sentences by combining them with another sentence.

4.Write conversationally: (a) use first-and second-person; (b) use “you” and “we;” (c) be polite and empathetic; and (d) write or narrate in a warm, conversational tone.

5.Write clear multiple-choice questions: (a) don’t write negatively worded (not, doesn’t, isn’t) questions; (b) write simply (shorter/simpler words/shorter sentences); (c) leave out unnecessary details; (d) make sure there is an unambiguously correct answer; and (e) don’t use “all of the above“ or “none of the above” as answer choices.

As an English major, I have enjoyed using words with my thesaurus by my side. I guess there is a time and a place for more flowery writing. I have learned that place is not in training or marketing materials!

How plain is your language?

By the way, plain language even has its own day! October 13th is International Plain Language Day.

May your learning be sweet.


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