“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
– International Plain Language Working Group (IPLWG)
A communication in plain language can be a no-parking sign, insurance form, letter or even complex legislation. Plain language is everywhere. It is not limited to the legal world. Healthcare professionals need plain language to make sure their patients understand and are following their treatment plans. Insurance companies need plain language to make sure their insured persons provide the correct information during usually difficult times. Drivers in a city need to know the rules of the road. Everyone needs to understand the laws or other rules that affect them.
The above definition focuses on three elements of plain language: wording, structure and design. We will discuss each of these elements below.
Wording is key to plain language writing. Word choice is more than choosing the shortest and simplest words. When choosing words, we need to take into account the context of the word, as words affect the words around them. Words can be sneaky sometimes and mean different things in different regions. Just to be difficult, they can sound the same (homonyms) but mean something else. Then there are all the words that seem to mean the same thing (synonyms). Once you have chosen your word, you need to decide if it is necessary. Unnecessary and repetitive words should be removed from the communication. Too many words will complicate the communication, and using too few words leads to only partial understanding.
The structure of the communication is how you control the context of the words. The structure defines the purpose of the communication. A contract and a street sign have much different purposes and structures. Clear and meaningful headings and subheadings help the reader understand the context of the words. Bullet points can make complex sentences easy to understand. Many forms of communication have defined structures. A contract will have a signature block, a speeding ticket will identify the driver and an essay will have a thesis. How a communication is structured defines how a communication is organized.
Design brings structure and wording together with visual cues, such as icons and the use of white space. Long documents have a table of contents. Fonts must be easy to read. Charts and graphics complement the meaning of the words. White space around headings leads the reader through the communication. Headings are bold and parenthetical information is italicized. Design elements work with structure to tell the reader what to expect from the communication by creating context.
A plain language communication balances word choice, structure and design. The above definition also includes a way of measuring plain language success. The reader finds what they need, understands what they find, and uses that information. These measurements are not easy to come by. They require expensive user testing and focus groups. When working on a budget, we rely on other measurements and tools, which will be the focus of the next plain language column. Stay tuned!