Getting to the Heart of Plain Language

chow_178__dracula_by_tsabo6Can you believe it’s nearly the end of July? I hope you are all having a lovely summer (or winter for those of you in the southern hemisphere). 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.


Image credit: Tsabo6 @ deviantART

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19 thoughts on “Getting to the Heart of Plain Language

  1. Great stuff, Suzanne. While writing at GGP, I’m constantly thinking how to trim things down and make sometimes complex ideas as clear as possible. I keep my editor in a sugarbowl beside the computer. Is that good enough? 😉

    One thing I wonder about though. Considering I’m always writing fiction intsead of technical work, I often try to change up terms for things to keep the language fresh. I might say “elephant” in one sentence, and “pachyderm” the next. I think in a corporate email, sticking with a term is essential, but would you say that still applies in fiction?

    Loved the way you finished this. Stoker definitely uses the language of his time, which sounds exotic now. Your rewrite made all your points clear. Terrific post!

    1. I think most editors would be happy to live inside a sugarbowl. 🙂

      Plain language can be useful in fiction too, especially when it comes to sentence structure and length. You don’t want to make your readers work too hard to figure out what’s going on. I guess the key is to think about your target audience. Will they know that pachyderm is an alternative word to describe an elephant — or will they have to stop reading to look it up?

      I’m glad to hear my example made all the plain language points clear. Dracula is such a great book, and so very Victorian, with all its flowery, descriptive prose. Thanks so much for reading, Eric!

  2. Very worth reading – plain language is so important when it comes to journalism and getting across information, and it’s something I have to work on when I write for yearbook. Thanks for this article!

  3. Well, I am definitely for plain language! I think, though, that a better example of before-and-after would have been a contemporary excerpt. Since you used a period piece and then “translated” it into “plain” English, I felt that something was missing. Eloquence? The flowery colour of the era? I feel that the “edited” Stoker paragraph is lacking a certain… “je ne sais quoi,” as we say in French, here in Quebec. 🙂 Other than this, I liked your piece – all very good points!

    1. Thanks Ellie! I thought about using a modern piece, but Dracula was sitting right there on my shelf. 🙂 You definitely lose the romance of the Victorian era in my rewrite, but my point was to demonstrate how to make language accessible. If you have a “complicated” modern piece you’d like to share, I can take a stab at rewriting it in plain language.

    1. Thanks Silverleaf! Some GOC departments are pro plain language, but we definitely have to keep spreading the word. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment! 🙂

  4. Hi Suzanna! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured as a guest post on June 7th. As usual, it includes your credit/bio/link. Thanks!

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