8 Plain Language Elements and How They Delight Readers

Using plain language elements will make your writing much more enjoyable to your readers and yourself.

What is Plain Language

Plain Language is content that is written to ensure that the reader can easily scan a document,  understand its main points, find specific details quickly, and use the document as intended. This is critical for technical writers, bloggers, and other content creators.

The main elements of plain language that ensure the above is possible are:

  • Active voice and present tense
  • Using Second person
  • Bulleted and number lists
  • Strong verbs and other descriptors
  • Being Concise
  • Avoiding jargon, noun strings, and hidden verbs
  • Keeping voice conversational
  • Reducing abbreviations and technical terms
Magnifying glass over a web page

Benefits of using Plain Language

Many directions and scientific articles are guilty of failing to ensure their writing and content is easy to understand and scannable. Here is a section from a scientific article involving a study on breast cancer:

“According to the molecular subtype characteristics, 170 (46.4%) patients were luminal subtypes (Her2 negative), 130 (35.5%) were Her2-positive subtypes (about 18 patients in each group had received neoadjuvant target therapy with pertuzumab and trastuzumab, while around 50 patients in each group had been treated with trastuzumab only), and 66 (18.0%) were TNBC subtypes.”

The acronyms were defined previously in the article, but most of the jargon was not. Even if it was, do you really want to go through multiple chunky paragraphs just to find a definition, or do you just want to throw up your hands and say, “This is too complicated; I give up?” 

Supposedly, science is a social field, getting critical feedback from the rest of the population that is not part of the field. Looking at writing like this, I’m not sure how that is possible.

When written in plain language, content can be fun and entertaining and provide good user experience.

Here are some motivational phrases:

  • You are stronger than you think.
  • Everyday is full of new opportunities.
  • Failure is a crucial part of success.
  • Great things and people are worth the work.

Writing with plain language elements has the following benefits:

  • Organizes information to be easier to find.
  • Crafts Topics into easily-digestible parts.
  • Molds documents to be simple to use.
  • Entices the reader to actually read the content.

Plain Language Elements

The following are the crucial plain language elements. Try to use them all in your writing.

1. Active voice and present tense

Unless you are writing fiction, history, or poetry, generally you should always use active voice and present tense. This means to name the person (at least by their job) who is doing the action currently. The main exceptions are when: 

  • You don’t want to blame someone: The coffee machine is broken – passive voice – vs. Sam broke the coffee machine – active voice.
  • You don’t know the person involved: The street was paved. (How many people know their local street paver?)
  • The reader cares more about the object, action, or other details rather than the person involved: The COD final draft was sent to the New York publisher yesterday.
  • Using active voice or present tense is otherwise confusing: Driving home for ten miles, the cat greeted us when we came home.

2. Use Second Person

When possible, use second person in writing instructions and manuals. Use ‘you’ and avoid using words like ‘the user’ or ‘they’ when addressing your primary audience. This also makes your writing more friendly to your readers. The main exception is when you are writing a formal document; use your company’s or client’s desired style for this.

3. Bulleted and numbered lists

Use bulleted and numbered lists to organize lists of information. Keep the indent of these lists consistent to help guide your reader through your document. Only use numbered lists when there is a reason to do so, like when the information is presented chronologically or steps of a process need to be done in a specific order.

4. Strong verbs and other descriptors

Use strong verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and other parts of speech to make sure your reader understands what the information being presented is. This is critical in instructions, descriptions, and manuals. Don’t say ‘use three cups’; say ‘carefully measure three level cups’.

5. Be Concise

If you don’t have anything nice or helpful to say, don’t say it at all. Don’t write it either. Keep redundancy at a minimum and sentences as short as possible without leaving out critical details.

6. Avoid jargon, slang, and lingo

Unless you are writing for veterans in the field that know exactly what you are talking about, don’t use jargon, slang, or lingo that the readers may not know. Having to look up words just irritates readers. If you must use them, define them clearly in a way that is easy to find and go back to when readers have continued reading the document.

7. Keep voice conversational

Making content conversational includes more than using second person: 

  • Use words and phrases that are used in normal conversation, 
  • Utilize examples to better explain your points, 
  • Use the word ‘must’ when writing about a requirement and ‘may’ when something is optional,
  • Don’t use slashes when ‘and’ or ‘or’ works just fine.

8. Reduce use of abbreviations and technical terms 

Abbreviations and technical terms that are not known by the average reader should be avoided to reduce confusion and irritation. If needed, define them when they are necessary. Scientists love to use abbreviations, even when it is not necessary; one paper I read turned ‘High-lipid cells’ into HLC’! This just saved a bit of space in exchange for greatly raising reader confusion.

Summary

Plain Language is content that is written to ensure that the reader can easily scan a document,  understand its main points, find specific details quickly, and use the document as intended. The main plain language elements that ensure this is possible are:

  • Active voice and present tense,
  • Using Second person,
  • Bulleted and number lists,
  • Strong verbs and other descriptors,
  • Being Concise,
  • Avoiding jargon, noun strings, and hidden verbs,
  • Keeping voice conversational,
  • Reducing abbreviations and technical terms.

These are the main plain language elements. For more info about plain language, the US government has a site at https://www.plainlanguage.gov/ to help you.

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