Recently I edited a few information pieces destined for an audience that included people with developmental disabilities. Among the several things I learned from this work – or was reminded of – was that it sometimes takes more words, not fewer to rewrite information in plain language.
It’s common for organizations seeking to clarify their info to assume that plain language writing will shorten a piece of text. And it’s easy to see why; people who are a bit familiar with how readability tests measure texts know that the length of a sentence is one of the factors that determines the Grade level score.
So to extend that logic, one assumes there should also be much less to read in the plainer version. Indeed, a big part of helping motivate people to read our information is to make the reading task manageable.
I referred to this in a previous post about the difference between plain language and clear, effective communication; as an editor you do often have to make decisions about what gets to stay and what has to go. Or you risk losing readers who are intimidated or put off by a longer document.
It’s all well and good to argue that the writer break up the information into smaller bits and stagger its release over a longer time period, or that they find other ways besides the printed page to get their info out. Some people may implement other approaches, when they have the time later. But right now, they may have a legal or other requirement to get all of their info out at one time.
But when your client says that most of it has to stay, and must be sent out in its entirety, you may end up writing more words to accomplish plain language – not fewer.
Why? A key reason is the need to get the same message across to someone who is unfamiliar with, or cannot process the word length of, the words you would otherwise use to explain a concept. The lower the Grade level you are aiming for in your text, the more words you often end up with:
Before: We must review your eligibility criteria.
After: We must review the list of criteria for who can receive services or direct funding from us.
Similarly, you may need to add more words when you add a definition to help readers understand a complex concept that affects them (sometimes this is done in a separate text box).
You may also add helpers in the form of headings or introductory text to set information apart visually. This, too, means more words:
Before: This information is a guide to implementing the residential model intended for persons with a disability, their family members or staff of agencies that serve this population.
After: This guide explains the steps you will follow to set up this residential model. It is divided into four main sections, or parts. The Guide also includes detailed information and key things to think about during each step.
Who this guide is for
Many of these ideas are arranged in lists, depending on whether you are:
- A person with a developmental disability
- The family member of a person seeking their own home
- An agency that works with people seeking their own home
Despite your need to use more words, you still stand a better chance of reaching more of your readers and calling your work ‘plain language.’ Just make sure you pay overall attention to keeping sentences short and using fewer syllables, along with attending to other factors that make your work interesting and inviting (subscribe to this blog to read future discussions on these…).
For two intensive works on how writers measure readability, see US Plain Language expert William DuBay’s recent release Smart Language: Readers, Readability and the Grading of Text (available on Amazon or – in the true spirit of accessibility – as a no-charge PDF).