What is it that makes a document ‘plain language’? Is it that the writers use hundred-dollar words instead of million-dollar ones? Is it that the font is bigger and easy to read? Is it that the finished document tests at the Grade 6 level, rather than reading like an academic research paper or a wordy legal contract?

It’s all of these things, and so much more.

My first few years as a plain language editor focused on taking all of the information in a document, then editing it – often sentence by sentence – into language that more people could understand. I also added basic elements of design, organization, formatting and layout to make the document easier to navigate.

The end result was certainly better than the original – but was it really going to be effective?

Lessons learned from the trenches…
Again, clear writing should for certain show attention to all of the above elements. But to communicate the message you want to send, you also need to observe appropriate boundaries.

By way of demonstration, witness some of the hard lessons learned from seeing
the messages I’d so carefully crafted miss the mark:

  • Sometimes telling it like it is only makes your message sound more harsh or negative. Often writers balk at even releasing the information once they see how someone might interpret the plainer words. Then you have to strategize about how to say something without reaping unwanted negative feedback.
  • Similarly, when it comes to protecting the image of a company, sometimes information that is too plain can open the business up to undesired negative attention. For example, publishing a photo of your CEO reveling at a company event may make her look more approachable and human – but it can also open her up to criticism for letting it hang too loose during business events.
  • Information that is very easy-to-read may end up being way too long, since often it takes more words to say things plainly, and more space to separate ideas into manageable units. If this drives up budgets, or makes the length discouraging for readers, you may have to split your piece up into separate, more focused units.
  • It makes no sense to rewrite anything in plain English if it’s not the information the reader needs. Often, you need to go beyond simply rendering same the information at a different grade level. Does your information transmit the key messages you want people to get? Does it state or inspire the actions you want the reader to take after they read it? If not, you may have to go back to square one.
  • Your message may be very clear, well chosen, the right length and tone – but if not delivered using the suitable medium, it might not get read. Or, it could be read differently than how you intended. For example, it’s never a good idea to use e-mail to try to resolve conflict or announce major change* – your over-attention to formality and tone may make you sound overly-apologetic, not credible (assuming people can find your message among the scores of subject lines in their Inboxes).

Clear writing experts usually encourage a field test to make these situations less likely. But practical (i.e., budget and time) concerns intervene more often than not to make that last step a challenge. Fortunately, experience does have a way of giving communicators the ongoing feedback that improves their results over time.

Clear, useful information accounts for much more than simply functioning as a direct ‘translation’ from one type of English to another. Trust someone with the experience to know how to transmit your message both plainly and effectively.

To learn more about what plain language is, where it’s important, and who provides these kinds of services, visit the website of the Plain Language Association International.

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* For more on choosing the right medium for your messages, see advice from U.S. experts in The Larkin Pages: http://www.larkin.biz/larkin_pages.htm.

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