Do you remember the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel? The story is told of how people tried to build a city with a tower that would reach to heaven. God didn’t take kindly to their efforts and decided to make the inhabitants unable to communicate with each other, thereby making it impossible to build the tower.
Today, the ability of people to speak effectively with one another is again being challenged – not necessarily by divine intervention, but by the varying skill levels of people and the frustration almost everyone has at one time or another in being able to understand what someone else – government, lawyers, scientists or others – has written. And, it’s not just about the educational levels of people. More often, it’s just people writing without realizing their material is just not written in a way that makes it easy to understand.
If you were to search Amazon.com for “plain language” in the mega-store’s online books category alone, you would get more than 8,000 hits. Clearly there is a high and growing demand for help in understanding and writing in a way that is clear and simple.
Though estimates vary, according to the National Council for Education Statistics, at least 48 million in the United States and Canada are essentially non-readers; they can't understand written materials. Worse, 58 million are limited skilled readers - people who can read, but not well. They can read as long as the material uses familiar vocabulary, logical organization, and an uncluttered layout.
What Is Plain Language?
So, what is “plain language?” According to the Center for Plain Language, “plain language is information that is focused on readers. When you write in plain language, you create information that works well for the people who use it, whether online or in print?” Simply put, writing in plain language means writing in a way that the reader can find what they need, understand what they find and act appropriately based on that understanding.
But, as plain as that definition may be – particularly to readers of this article, who are likely to have a better understanding of the written word than most people – the problem of people not understanding what they read because the writer has written something in a way that is nearer to unintelligible than not is a growing and serious problem.
Take for example the privacy statements that come with your credit card bill or bank statement. How about the details of a mortgage or other major purchase – chance are very few people even bother to read the material, let alone understand all of it.
And language can so easily be made simple rather than complex. Take for example a brochure published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The small, foldout brochure itself was trimmed down from a six-page article. How? Here’s one before and after example:
Old Version – The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing.
New Version – Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.
It looks simple, doesn’t it? Yet, the problem with materials being written in other than plain language was so significant a problem that a law had to be passed to do something about it.
Is It Working?
Have all these laws had a major effect on the every day lives of the common citizen? Some, but most would agree that much more needs to be done. And, the task of getting things written in plain, understandable language is not the sole purview of governments and regulators. In our own jobs, workplaces and even in school there is much to be done to prevent us all from sinking as far as the builders of the Tower of Babel.
Some progress is being made. For example, in Maryland police have eliminated the familiar “10-codes” (e.g. 10-4 as way to acknowledge receiving a message), so instead of saying “10-46,” police now say “disabled vehicle.”
But, even in our own lives the need and desire for plain language is great.
In its effort to emphasize the use of plain language, the U.S. government established a website – plainlanguage.gov - where tips for writing in plain language are provided.
The site suggests that writing in plain and understandable ways begins by writing for the “average reader” which means knowing the expertise and interest of the average reader, and writing to and for that person. You don't need to write in a way that mainly experts, lawyers, or academics in the field might understand it (which some people do merely to impress others), unless that’s the audience you are writing for.
Here are some other tips.
1. Writing should be organized by putting the most important material first and organizing the material chronologically. Certainly, in creative and literary writing this might not apply, but you aren’t writing the Great American Novel when all you are trying to do is complete a work assignment or communicate with a co-worker or friend.
2. Sometimes plain language isn’t about what you say or write it’s how what you write appears. Headings – like the ones that appear in this article – often help the reader find the way through your material. Headings sum up the core of all the material under the heading. You should try to have one or more headings on each page.
3. Use "you" and other pronouns to speak to the reader. Have you ever read or seen examples where the author writes, “the party of the first part,” or some such high sounding text? Well, that “party” is someone. So, use pronouns to pull the reader into the document and makes it more meaningful to him or her. Use "you" for the reader and “I” when referring to yourself.
4. Use an active voice to clarify who is doing what. What that means is that active sentences are structured with the actor first (as the subject), then the verb, then the object of the action. For example, if you say, “the man must have eaten five hamburgers,” that’s the active voice, as opposed to saying “five hamburgers must have been eaten by the man.”
5. Avoid long and wordy sentences. Using short sentences, paragraphs and sections helps your reader get through your material. Long and unbroken sentences and paragraphs can put readers to sleep. Just imagine how you’d feel if you were reading a novel and it went on in one continuous stretch of text. There was no dialogue, breaks to indicate passage of time, and chapter breaks. You’d probably toss that book fast. Don’t make your reader feel the same way.
6. One of the things that really interfere with plain language is wordiness – the tendency by some writers to use several words when just a few will do. This is particularly evident in government. So, for example if you are prone to write things like, “we conduct an analysis of the data,” try shortening that to, “we analyze data.” It’s simply a matter of doing away with unnecessary words, shortening them and getting from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible. The practice of using more words than necessary is called “hidden verbs.” Don’t hide them – get rid of them.
7. Similar to the previous tip, don’t use words just to impress people. If your favorite book is a thesaurus, dump it. Also, don’t be an acronym nut – yes, it may be common to you to use the five letters of an organization or process, but at the very least spell out the complete name in its first usage. So, for example, instead of ESL, write English as a Second Language – at least the first time you use it. The same goes for other types of jargon, foreign words and legal terms.
8. If you do have to use complex terms try using lists and tables to provide visual descriptions of what the term means. Using diagrams, photos, etc. can also give your document more white space, making it more appealing to the reader.
There are many ways to improve your writing skills by making them cleaner, simpler and easier to understand. After all, isn’t understanding what you are trying to achieve? If you need more help, there are a great number of books and websites (some listed below) that can assist you.