What is Plain Language and Why Does It Matter?

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By Crystal Bruce, Health Communication Specialist

There is good news for advocates of plain language. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published the world’s first plain language standard called ISO 24495-1 Plain language — Part 1: Governing principles and guidelines. ISO is a worldwide federation that develops and promotes standards for a wide range of fields such as science, technology, working conditions, and societal issues – and now plain language.

The International Plain Language Federation has been working on this project for over a decade. This new standard, based on an internationally accepted definition of plain language and on empirical evidence, provides a clear understanding of what plain language is and how organizations can achieve it.

Why use plain language

Plain language is designed to communicate information as clearly as possible so it can reach as many people as possible. It’s not simplified language; it’s direct language that doesn’t contain any flair or fluff. When you use plain language, you aren’t “dumbing down” what you’re writing. Rather, you’re writing to avoid any potential misunderstanding due to a language barrier, limited literacy, or limited familiarity with your topic. This is why many organizations are adopting plain language as a standard. For example, the Legal Writing Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving legal communication offers plain language training for its members.

Some writers use an academic tone out of habit or try to impress readers with complex sentences and showy vocabulary. The misconceived notion that long sentences and big words make you sound smarter (or more professional) results in great sacrifices to readability and credibility. The mark of a good writer is the ability to communicate ideas clearly.

It’s the law. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies and organizations working with the government to use plain language.

How to write in plain language

There are no concrete rules for writing in plain language. Rather, there are general guidelines to follow. These include:

  • using vocabulary your reader is likely to know. When choosing words, always choose the simplest words possible.
  • using short sentences. Split one long sentence into two short ones when possible.
  • making the relationships between ideas and sentences clear with transition words.
  • using only details that make the information easier to understand. Leave out any unnecessary details.
  • writing directly to your reader. In many cases, this means writing from the second person point of view.
  • using the active voice whenever possible. With active voice, it is clear who is doing what.

What plain language is not

Plain language is not long, complex sentences with technical and confusing words. Plain language is not unprofessional writing or a method of “talking down” to the reader. Plain language does not oversimplify or change the meaning or create imprecision.  Writing in plain language is not just for casual writing; everyone benefits from clear writing.

Writing at Karna

Karna embraces plain language writing. Internally, our new employee training includes modules on how to incorporate clear communication and plain language best practices in all our writing – from everyday emails to business proposals. We use on-line tools to review our public-facing documents (e.g., Grammarly®, Hemmingway app, and Visible Thread), and we have on-going webinars, resources and peer-led groups to improve our writing available to Karna employees. Over the years, we have supported clients as they developed many resources that highlight the importance of plain language. For example, we helped create CDC’s Easy to Read COVID-19 Materials, several COVID-19 vaccine factsheets and trainings for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Everyone benefits when information is easily accessible. Plain language helps remove barriers between your message and your audience. So, leave out the big words. Put aside unnecessary technical terms. Shorten your sentences and break up your paragraphs. Don’t worry about the conventions of technical writing you learned in school.

Think clearly, express yourself concisely, and structure your writing so it is convenient for readers of various backgrounds and reading levels. By taking these steps, it will be easier for your audience to find what they need, understand what they find the first time they read or hear it, and use what they find to meet their needs.

Ready to talk?

Clients who need to contact Karna regarding a current or potential contract can send email to info@karna.com or use our Contact Form.