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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles

Top 20 Tips to Write in Plain Language

The Act of Communication in Plain English WritingWhat Is Plain Language?

Writing in "plain language" or "plain English" means you use easy words and short sentences to accommodate the average reader who may have trouble understanding hard words, as well as individuals who do not have knowledge of the expertise area.

The goal of plain language is to provide clear, simple, and streamlined communication. This style of writing is valuable in the jargon-cluttered world of healthcare (and especially in our legal system), where it is crucial that communication between experts and the general public is very clear. It is important to use plain language with all consumers, not just those with limited literacy skills.

Why Is Plain Language Important?

Most adults have limited time and limited expertise in specific areas, such as having technological and medical backgrounds. Many adults have limited literacy skills. Plain language allows consumers to easily understand words, sentences, concepts and instructions. For example, in the healthcare field, plain language helps the average consumer understand forms and instructions for taking prescriptions, providing consent, preparing for visits or procedures, caring for a chronic condition, etc.

If you do not communicate with your target audience in a clear and understandable manner, it is impossible that every reader will understand what you are trying to say. Using plain language increases your communication with multiple target audiences.

The two key rules for communicating in plain language are:

1.  Know your audience—for whom are you writing? Consider your readers' age, gender, ethnic background, education, etc.

2.  Identify your main message and key points—and stick to them!

Once you have mastered these two simple rules, follow these writing tips to make your materials more reader-friendly.

Writing in Plain Language—20 Top Tips

1. Put the most important information at the beginning.

The beginning is a place of honor and will help your reader focus in immediately. Put your main message right up front.

2. Use short words and short sentences.

Try to keep sentences to 20 words or less. Instead of using semicolons and dashes, break a long sentence into two or more shorter sentences.

3. Create short paragraphs or sections with one major idea in the first line.

Place your main message in the first sentence. Group similar ideas together and remove information that overlaps.

4. Use the active voice.

Avoid using the verb "to be" (is, was, were, will be). Instead, make your sentences come alive with action.

Use: Ask your coach if he or she uses shin guards.

Avoid: Players should ask their coach if shin guards are used.

5. Talk directly to the reader.

Use: You have the right to exclude your information.

Avoid: Players have the right to request that their information not be included.

6. Provide concrete examples.

Use: A medical chart can save your life in an emergency by providing your doctor with accurate information about the medications you take and the conditions you have.

Avoid: A medical chart can save your life in an emergency.

7. Use short, bulleted lists.

Use: You can find different ways to exchange computer information:
  • Internet,
  • recorded devices, or
  • digital media.
Avoid: There are a number of different ways computer information can be exchanged, such as through the Internet, recorded devices, and digital media.

8. Use headers or subtitles that group information.

Many low-literacy readers find large blocks of text intimidating. Use headers to break up large blocks of text and help readers find the information that they seek. It also helps to keep your writing organized and logical. For example, when designing a brochure, rather than writing in continuous paragraphs (like you were writing a novel), try listing one or two paragraphs underneath a subheading. Another good tip is to use questions as subheadings, such as "Where can I find more information?"

9. Eliminate unnecessary words.

Use: Talk to your coach about the benefits and risks of playing outdoors.

Avoid: We encourage you to talk with your coach about the benefits for you and the possible risks to you of playing outdoors.

10. Don't use abbreviations.

Use: 8:00 in the morning

Avoid: 8:00 am

11. Repeat your central message.

Repeating your main point at least once is a good practice. It helps re-emphasize your message in the reader's memory.

12. Create a form of reader interaction.

This can be as simple as asking a question at the end of a section, like "Have you thought about what to ask your coach?" It could also take the form of a checklist, a fill-in-the-blank, or a trivia question. By taking an active role, the reader is more likely to recall the information later.

13.  Use concrete examples to explain key concepts.

Use: When you take this medicine, be sure to eat a piece of bread or crackers at the same time.

Avoid: Take with food.

14. When possible, pretest newly created materials with consumers in the target audience.

For example, if you want to communicate a message to a Latino population, test your materials with Latino consumers to gauge the efficacy of the tools you are using.

15. Make sure you leave white space on your page.

This makes the task of reading feel less overwhelming and makes it easier for the eye to follow to the next line.

16. Use at least 12-point font in an easy-to-read typeface. Such as:
  • Georgia
  • Times New Roman
  • Veranda
17. Avoid italics.

Instead try bolding words or bulleting phrases to which you want to draw attention.

18. In general, do not use all capital letters.

Writing in capitals makes your reader feel that you are YELLING at them, and no one likes to be yelled at. "All Caps" is also harder to read.

19. Use diagrams and pictures to explain the text.

When appropriate, use a picture that reflects your message. For example, use diagrams to explain how health information will flow in an exchange. However, the pictures should relate to the subject and not have excess detail to distract from the message.

20. Remember—reading and understanding are two different things.

Ask consumers to state back to you the information they read. This is one of the best ways to check that they have understood it.

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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles