Getting to the Heart of Plain Language

Blackboard

 

by Suzanne Purkis

You probably don’t know this, but I’m a member of Plain Language Association International. Plain language is all about clear communication. It’s a way of writing and presenting information that makes it easy for readers to understand.

In our globally connected world, accessible language and clear communication are more important than ever. So today, I’d like to tell you a bit about the basics of plain language.

Plain language focuses on five key areas: organization, tone, design, language, and length.

1.  Organization
How you organize content can make it easier (or harder) for people to read. Plain language uses the inverted pyramid style, which means you put the most important information at the top, and organize the rest of the information in that way (so the least important stuff comes last).

2.  Tone
Plain language is usually written in the active voice, in a tone that is respectful and friendly, and it tends to speak directly to the audience (using “you” or “we” is encouraged).

3.  Design
Visually, plain language content should be presented in a way that’s easy to read, which includes:

  • using a readable font in a readable size that contrasts well with the background;
  • using headings and subheadings to clearly label content; and
  • using visual elements (tables, sidebars, lists, etc.) to highlight key information.

4.  Language
This is the trickiest part of plain language writing. You have to write with your editor’s brain switched on (or at least sitting in a jar on your desk). The key is to keep it simple. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t use big fancy words or complicated language unless it’s essential for clarity or meaning (e.g., publish not promulgate; so not in view of the above; kill not extinguish).
  • Don’t use archaic/dated language (e.g., animalcule, coxcomb, fandangle, sanguinary, etc.).
  • If you use technical terms or acronyms, explain them (e.g., OOPSI, the Obscure Organization for Post-living Sentient Individuals).
  • Finally, be consistent, especially when using technical terms. If you call something a stake the first time you mention it, don’t refer to it as a vampire-ender in some places or a justice toothpick in others. Pick one term and stick with it.

5.  Length
Plain language favours short, single-idea sentences. If you have a hard time with this, here are some guidelines:

  • Use simple sentence structure.
  • Keep subjects and verbs close together.
  • For lists of three or more things (especially if they use more than one word each), use bullets or a table.
  • Try to keep your sentences under 25 words.
  • Use that editor’s brain and delete unnecessary words.

I thought it would be fun to end with an example. There are two paragraphs below. The first is an excerpt from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The second is my plain language rewrite. I chose this because a) vampires! and b) dated (Victorian) language. (By the way, this is not a criticism of Stoker’s writing. I love Dracula.)

Stoker’s original text:
Just over the external jugular vein there were two punctures, not large, but not wholesome looking. There was no sign of disease, but the edges were white and worn looking, as if by some trituration. It at once occurred to me that this wound, or whatever it was, might be the means of that manifest loss of blood. But I abandoned the idea as soon as it formed, for such a thing could not be. The whole bed would have been drenched to a scarlet with the blood which the girl must have lost to leave such a pallor as she had before the transfusion.

My plain language rewrite:
There were two small puncture marks above her jugular. There was no sign of infection, but the marks looked sore and their edges were white and well-worn. It occurred to me that the marks might explain all the blood loss, but I realized that was impossible. Given how pale she was before the transfusion, the whole bed would have been drenched with blood if the puncture marks were the cause of her condition.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Suzanne Purkins, blogger at Apoplectic Apostrophes. She is a writer, editor, mother, step-mother, dog owner, sleep-deprived, tea-drinking chaos-magnet.

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11 thoughts on “Getting to the Heart of Plain Language”

  1. Part of me thinks, yes, plain language is well needed, just too much pretentious bullshit around. Then I think but what about the lovely prose we will lose and then I worry we will turn into 1984. Newspeak.

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  2. I didn’t know this existed. As an actual organization. I fully understood it as a concept. 🙂 Thank you for sharing but I utterly love using the word “coxcomb” and I refuse to stop using it!

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  3. One thing to consider is that we’re a global market. We’re no longer limited to our own country when we are selling books, and if we want to reach a wider audience, plain language is the best way to go. I’ve talked to people who have English as a second language. They are encouraged to read fiction in order to learn the language. How much easier is it for them to read our books when we decide to make it plain? That could very well be a huge selling point in other countries. 🙂

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    1. Hm-mm …
      Imagine if you were reading a story in another language though, one you were learning. How wonderful would it be if there were words with complex meanings that you had to delve deeper into the culture and language to get the full flavour of.
      Certainly, don’t use ‘big’ words for the sake of ‘big-wordiness’ but don’t limit your art either.
      On the other hand, legal-ese could definitely benefit from a plain language immersion! 😀

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  4. Plain language is sensible when making sure a message will be understood is the primary goal. Plain language may not be the right approach for poetry when ambiguity or contradiction or simply the beauty of the arrangement of the words is the goal. Adhering to one does not mean the other must be abandoned.

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  5. I am amazed to know that an organization exists to promote plain language. I absolutely love the idea of plain language as it is within everyone’s reach but I have realized that people consider it as something unworthy of reading if you end up using simple language. Using complex, unheard words gives weight to your writing, though I desist from it. But would really love to follow plain language. Thanks for this post !

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  6. Unexplained acronynms bug the hell out of me. I think it’s part of the ‘I am the center of the universe’ mentality, either conscious or unconscious, seems to have oozed through all levels of our culture and society.

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  7. Generally plain speak in reading is prefferable to most people I think.
    As for the rewrite, the original sounds better but then it was typical of the time, modern writing cant really get away with it.

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  8. That’s very good advice, thank you. I often struggle with expressing my thoughts and keeping the language plain.

    I’d never heard about the Plain Language organization before. I’ll be sure to check it out.

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