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
Plain language is communication
that can be understood by the intended audience and meets the purpose of the communicator.
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,
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.
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
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:
- In what situation or environment will this document be
- Who will be the readers or users of the document?
- What is the reader or user to do after reading the
- 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
- What is the factual foundation?
- What are your research requirements?
- How will you gain knowledge of the:
- divide the work?
- delegate parts of the project?
- anticipate developments?
Organize the task and the document using these resources:
- production staff,
Identify rules and regulations you must follow for:
- layout and design.
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.
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
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:
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
The writing process is sometimes described as: prewriting,
writing, and revising. Here are the steps in the plain language
- Determine your purpose
- Identify your audience
- Plan the writing project
- Research or gather information
- Focus the content
- Organize the information
- Visualize the final product
- Identify the constraints
- Recognize obstacles
Editing and Designing
- Revise the content
- Check for accuracy
- Organize the structure
- Edit for style
- Design the lay-out
- Add graphics
- Get feedback from peers
- Try-out on audience
- Revise or redesign
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
- Write with personal pronouns: you, we, I.
- Be direct; eliminate any ambiguities.
- Use a logical pattern and make the links between ideas
- Use titles and subtitles that are informative or summarize
- Cut out any information that is not essential to your
- Prioritize the information and put the most information at
- Use graphics, charts, and pictures to reinforce crucial facts
- Use a formal table of contents for long documents or a
summary introductory paragraph for shorter ones.
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
- Keep your grammatical constructions parallel.
- Use a tone that suits your audience and avoid unnecessary
- Simplify your words; choose everyday language.
- Cut the jargon and avoid acronyms.
- Use technical words with care: define or provide descriptive
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.
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
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?
- Is it attractive? Is it legible?
- Does it appear interesting?
- Does it appear relevant to the reader?
- Will the audience member take the time to read this
- 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
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
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.