We should all think about plain language, and making ourselves clear, when we write anything for other people to read.
I’m a content designer so my brain is trained to think about the words that I use. I’m always asking myself:
- How can I make this clearer?
- What am I actually trying to say here?
- Does this language suit my audience?
And you might think, sure, you’re a content designer. You should be thinking about this stuff. But why do I have to?
Do you create surveys or job adverts? What about documentation or blog posts? If nothing else, you probably send your colleagues messages and emails.
In each of those cases, being clear will help the people you’re writing for, and save everyone time, effort, and stress.
To write for your audience, you need think about the language you’re using and how you’re using it.
What does “plain language” mean?
The International Plain Language Federation describes content that uses plain language like this:
“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
Let’s look at an example.
Pretend you’re sending an email to your team. Which option would you use: 1 or 2?
These documents are required to be completed ASAP: Documents a, b and c require sign off; document d requires analysis for accuracy.
We need sign off on:
- document a (link)
- document b (link)
- document c (link)
We need an accuracy check done on:
- document d (link)
We need this done by 5 pm on 1 December 2023.
Clearly, Option 2 is easier to read. But why?
The layout uses bullet points to split up the tasks, like a to do list. You can quickly understand what work is involved.
It’s signed off with a completion date. This information is where you’d expect to find it.
Specific links are used for each document. You don’t need a follow up email to make sure you’re looking at the right thing.
You don’t have to re-read the words multiple times to understand what needs to be done.
The simpler and more structured your content is, the less space created for confusion and error.
Specialists like plain language, too
In 2012, Christopher Trudeau, a professor at Western Michigan University, completed research on the language used in legal documents.
He found that when participants were given a choice, 80% preferred sentences written in plain English.
This preference grew when the subject matter became more complicated.
This research also highlighted that the participants with a higher level of education or specialist knowledge were even more keen to read content written in plain English.
Just because someone understands complex, technical language doesn’t mean they want to read it. It still takes effort to process and decode.
The Government Digital Service summarises this research in their blog post Clarity is king – the evidence that reveals the desperate need to re-think the way we write. This is where I found out about it.
You can read Christopher Trudeau’s full paper The Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal Communication.
Plain language and inclusivity
Inclusivity means writing content that includes everyone.
Using plain language means that your content will become more inclusive and more accessible.
This is because:
- simpler words help users who don’t speak English, or have English as an additional language, translate more easily
- headings and subheadings helps everyone (especially screen reader users) scan your content
- structuring content helps users with dyslexia navigate through your words
- splitting up sentences reduces the chance of ‘cognitive overload’ (when your working memory goes over capacity)
These are just a few examples.
But they explain how your content can affect your audience on a deeper level than just getting your point across.
10 tips on writing inclusive content with plain language
While working as a content designer on various government projects, I’ve learned some tips.
This is not a full list but you can use it as a starting point to review your writing.
- Use language that your audience is going to understand. When creating guidance, the NHS targets a reading age of 9 to 11 years old.
- Not everyone’s first language is English. Not everyone can speak English. Something to keep in mind.
- Use short words. GOV.UK explains that when you use a longer word, your audience is more likely to skip shorter words that come after it.
- Write in an active voice, instead of passive. For example, “We collected the data”, instead of “The data was collected by us”. Using an active voice often cuts down your word count.
- Use gender-neutral terms. An easy way to achieve this is by describing the person you’re writing for as “you”, and yourself as “I” or “we”.
- Use short sentences and start a new paragraph after every few sentences.
- Use headings to structure your content. Help users scan your words and find what they need.
- Use bullet points or numbered lists to break up your points.
- Avoid phrases that reference a visual point in your content. These are things like “shown above” or “linked below”. Screen reader users might struggle to make sense of these.
- If you’re using acronyms, explain them or spell them out the first time you use them.
Perfect content doesn’t exist
There will always be a way to improve your content and it’s easy to overthink your words.
As a content designer, I have deadlines I need to meet. I remind myself that it’s okay if my words aren’t perfect.
If my content is factually accurate, accessible and I’m not putting anyone in danger, I can let it go.
I can then get feedback from the audience and improve it.
You can do that, too.