How to Write in Plain Language

“Plain language” sounds simple. But as Thelonious Monk says, simple ain’t easy. When we write in plain language, that means writing in a way that makes information:

  • clear and understandable,
  • jargon free,
  • a low cognitive load,
  • easy to act on

In essence, it’s what every content creator strives for. But why? Aside from sounding nice, does plain language really matter?

Make Literacy More Literate

In Erika Hall’s Confab 2019 talk Conversational Design, she addresses the difference between “oral” and “literate” language. In her slides (see Slides 30-35) Hall offers examples of how something might be said orally, vs written down.

Must all written content be complex and difficult? Of course not. But Hall’s examples are a good reminder. What she calls “Oral” and “Literate” could also be called “good copy” and “poor copy.” The literate examples are highfalutin – formal and with more words than necessary. The oral examples are very casual.

Take, for example, healthcare. Healthcare is often written in a formal, stilted language. But plainly written health information improves health literacy.

Plain language can be formal, but never at the expense of literacy. Being literate should never mean the language isn’t plain and understandable.

Easy to Read, Easy to Do

David Dylan Thomas also spoke at Confab 2019, giving a talk called Fight Bias with Content Strategy. In his talk (Slide 19) he says that people correlate “easy to read” with “easy to do.” In other words, if instructions seem simple, then the related task will seem easy as well.

Take, for example, taxes. Taxes are complicated, but with easy-to-read instructions, they can be broken down into simple steps. A well written set of instructions saves time and energy, and may facilitate better decisions.

Make it Boring

Scott Kubie recently wrote that content strategy is boring – and that’s ok! Scott says:

It’s OK to be boring. Boring beats baffling. Obvious beats obtuse. Articulated beats assumed. (I can do these all day.) Time and again, smart people get stymied in their content strategy work because they’re afraid to write down something that seems too simple, too obvious, too boring. Boo!

Scott Kubie, Content Strategy is Boring (and that’s okay)

He’s right. Strategy is about getting the simple, obvious, and important things decided. Similarly, plain language doesn’t need to be exciting. The UX pyramid may speak to significant, enjoyable experiences, but before it’s possible to have that the information must be reliable and usable.

UX Pyramid with 6 levels: Functional (bottom), Reliable, Usable, Convenient, Enjoyable, and Significant (top)

Plain language isn’t as sexy as creating a fun brand personality. But brand personality makes content enjoyable. Before that, it must be useful – and that’s where plain language comes in.

Plain Language is Simple (Not Easy)

How do you write in plain language? Follow these steps:

  1. Identify the main goals of your content. What does the audience need to know?
  2. Remember that your audience is not you. What makes them different? What information do you have that they don’t? You might record this information as a persona, or an empathy map, or simply some notes.
  3. Imagine a conversation with your audience. What does it look like? What questions do they ask, and how do you answer them?
  4. Read aloud what you’ve written. See how it sounds.
  5. Use tools, like Hemingway Editor or Readable.io. These tools will help you measure readability. Try to stay at a Grade 6 or below for complex topics.
  6. Work with a designer. Designers have different perspectives from content creators, and getting that external feedback will help clarify content.
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