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An Introduction to Plain Language

By Cheryl Stephens

What is Plain Language?
Planning Guidelines
Audience Considerations
Writing as a Process
Writing Guidelines
Testing and Evaluation

What Is Plain Language?

Plain language is communication designed to meet the needs of the intended audience, so people can understand information, that is important to their lives.

Plain language is language that is understandable. What is clear, or what is plain to your intended audience, can only be decided by the audience. Most people expect a definition of plain language that describes writing of a certain style. Plain language is more a process -- it has been described as a means to an end. Richard Coe, a Simon Fraser University English professor, points out:

Language that is "plain" to one set of readers may be incomprehensible for others. "Plain language" is a variable, not an absolute... we can and should define it as language they can understand, language that gives its readers the information they need... Insofar as our readers vary, so too will "plainness" vary. (1)

Plain language document process involves working out a plan for a writing project, preparing a draft under the plan, and verifying the effectiveness of your draft through evaluation methods using the intended audience.

A crucial feature of plain language is testing the writing to determine whether it adequately conveys to the targeted reader the writer's intentions. The question is whether there is enough shared meaning between the writer and the reader. This definition of plain language is "reader-based" and not "text-based" analysis of a writing style.

[(1) Coe, Richard M. (1992) "Three Approaches to 'Plain Language': Better, Best and Better than Nothing", In Proceedings: Just Language Conference 1992. (pp. 99-109) Vancouver, BC: The Plain Language Institute]


Planning Guidelines

Preparing a plain language document is more than just writing: it is a project. Any project has a planning phase, but a plain language project requires some research and analysis of your audience and purpose. Here is a suggested approach.

Analyze the Task

These basic steps will help you analyze the task:

Identify your audience

Clarify your purpose

Determine your parameters or constraints

Through this analysis you will discover the suitable form and content of your writing project. Planning for your plain language document, ask yourself:

  1. In what situation or environment will this document be used?
  2. Who will be the readers or users of the document?
  3. What is the reader or user to do after reading the document?
  4. What constraints do you face in producing the document?

Determine the Procedure

Prepare for a writing project by working out a procedure:

How will you define your purpose in communicating with the intended audience?

What is the factual foundation?

who?
what?
when?
where?
why?
how?

What are your research requirements?

How will you gain knowledge of the:

 

facts?

 

environment?

 

audience?

 

policy?

 

law?

 

 

 

How will you:

 

divide the work?

 

delegate parts of the project?

 

anticipate developments?

 

 

 

Organize the task and the document using these resources:

researchers

writers

editors

production staff

Identify rules and regulations you must follow for:

form

content

layout and design


Audience Considerations

Plain language is language understood by its audience. Audience research and assessment is crucial to achieving ultimate success with a plain language document.

How Many Audiences Are There?

There is no such audience as the "general public." Think about all your potential readers to identify the audience you most need to reach. Decide which is the:

Primary audience

Secondary audience

Most significant audience

Primary Audience

Is the primary audience for a "Power of Attorney" document the person granting the authority to act or the person receiving it? Is the most significant audience the judge of the court who might have to decide any dispute that arises from the agreement? Or is it more important that the people directly involved can understand their rights and obligations so they can cooperate, won't need legal advice because of a dispute, and can avoid going to court?

The Most Significant Audience

How do you evaluate significance? The majority of readers, the most needy readers, the readers with paramount authority? Which audience should you have in mind when deciding what to say and how to say it? Which audience is the target for the communication?

The most significant reader may be the one least likely to understand. Design your document for this reader if doing so will not alienate other audiences.

Know your audiences

Identify the readers and consider their different:

Needs

Expectations

Characteristics

Consider these characteristics:

age range, gender issues, first language, family structure, education, cultural traditions, reading abilities, math abilities, familiarity with subject, biases, sensitivities, familiarity with special language, image of self, attitude toward topic, motivation, physical challenges, specific interests, mental or emotional challenges, specific concerns

Writing as a Process

The writing process is sometimes described as: prewriting, writing, and revising. Here are the steps in the plain language writing process.

Planning

  1. Determine your purpose
  2. Identify your audience
  3. Plan the writing project
  4. Research or gather information
  5. Focus the content
  6. Organize the information
  7. Visualize the final product
  8. Identify the constraints
  9. Recognize obstacles

Writing

Compose a first draft

Editing and Designing

  1. Revise the content
  2. Check for accuracy
  3. Organize the structure
  4. Edit for style
  5. Design the lay-out
  6. Add graphics

Evaluation

  1. Get feedback from peers
  2. Try-out on audience
  3. Revise or redesign

Writing Guidelines

Writing

There are many books and guidelines available to serve as your resource or authority on writing style.

Here are some plain language tips for writing and organizing information:

Write with personal pronouns: you, we, I.

Be direct; eliminate any ambiguities.

Use a logical pattern and make the links between ideas obvious.

Use titles and subtitles that are informative or summarize the text.

Cut out any information that is not essential to your purpose.

Prioritize the information and put the most information at the beginning.

Use graphics, charts, and pictures to reinforce crucial facts and points.

Use a formal table of contents for long documents or a summary introductory paragraph for shorter ones.

Rewriting

Here are some tips for revising your writing or editing the writing of others:

Organize clear sentences: keep the subject and verb close together at the beginning of the sentence.

Explain only one idea in each sentence.

Keep sentences under 35 words -- 25 words on average.

Use verbs instead of nouns for your action.

Use the active voice: make sure the actor is identified as well as the action.

Use passive voice when appropriate and necessary.

Use positive words and sentence constructions, avoiding negatives.

Keep your grammatical constructions parallel.

Use a tone that suits your audience and avoid unnecessary formality.

Simplify your words; choose everyday language.

Cut the jargon and avoid acronyms.

Use technical words with care: define or provide descriptive examples.

For an exceptional set of detailed guidelines, try Edward Fry's "Writeablity Checklist," which appeared as an appendix to "Writeablity: The Principles of Writing for Increased Comprehension" in Readability: Its Past, Present and Future edited by Beverley L. Zakaluk and S. Jay Samuels and published by the International Reading Association. This checklist is also available online at: Rapport: News about plain language, Number 6, January 1993.


Testing and Evaluation

Plain language process requires that the reader be consulted about the success of the communication. Through testing you learn whether the intended message has been expressed to the intended audience.

The process of testing documents is called "useability testing" because it is a process that has been adapted from product testing. People who do useability testing include marketing research firms, psychologists, and useability consultants. For a description of useability testing process, see "A Practical Guide to Useability Testing" by Janice Redish and Joe Dumas, Ablex Publishing Corp. 1993.

When you need to use your own resources for evaluation, consider the following suggestions.

Test the Original Document before Revising

If you are revising or replacing an existing document, it is advisable to test the original document before you start to meddle with it. You may be surprised that your guesses are wrong about which features cause problems for readers, which questions they want answered, and how they interpret your meaning.

Evaluate Your Own Document

Assess your document by asking these questions about it:

Will members of the intended audience use this document?
Does it appear interesting?
Does it appear relevant to the reader?
Will the audience member take the time to read this document?
Is the information accessible?
Is it well-organized and comprehensible?
Can the reader understand the language and concepts?
Is it clear? Is it concrete?
Is it personal?
Does it answer readers' questions?

Ask Your Peers to Edit

Whenever possible, ask your co-workers to comment on your early drafts. Carefully assess the feed-back you receive.

Test Documents on a Sample Audience

Ask your clerical or other staff to read the document and give you feed-back. Subject your draft to review by readers who resemble your target audience. Ask them the questions listed above.

Interview Individuals

Recruit individuals from inside or outside your organization. Ask them to read or use the document under your supervision. You can get their feed-back using a questionnaire or you can conduct an open-ended interview about the document or you can combine both methods.

Use Focus Groups

The most formal and expensive approach is to gather groups together to read and discuss the document. You must convene at least three groups. If you do only one or two focus groups, you can find your total results badly skewed by the behaviour of one outspoken individual or generally negative group. You usually have to pay the participants in a focus group and you ought to provide refreshments appropriate to the length of the session. Focus groups can often provide you with valuable information but they are difficult to administer yourself.

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© 2000 Cheryl Stephens All rights reserved.

 

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Last Updated 7-28-09