Those of us who work in plain language are intimately familiar with the basic techniques that help us produce clear communications, including using:
- common words familiar to the intended reader,
- a conversational style that speaks directly to the audience,
- active voice whenever appropriate,
- short sentences,
- a positive tone, and
- an effective design that maximizes readability.
But do these techniques go far enough? At the Editors’ Association of Canada conference, plain language experts Claire Foley and Tracy Torchetti raised some specific issues to keep in mind if you aim to make your writing truly plain.
Using plain language means writing for your audience—but how well do you know them? If you’re writing for Canadians, be aware that:
- 42% of adult Canadians have low literacy skills
- 17% of the Canadian population are immigrants
- 32% of Canadians don’t have English as a first language
As Foley said, “If you’re writing for Canadians, you are writing for ESL speakers.” And not only is Canada’s immigration population growing—so is its aging population. Your audience is diverse, and your communications will need to accommodate their needs, including those of people with different abilities.
Some text may be translated into Braille or sent through text-to-speech software, said Torchetti, and if the text has been clearly written in plain language, it is more likely to be rendered correctly. Otherwise you may end up with verbal gobbledygook.
Writing for your audience means that plain language pushes the boundary of what is acceptable to those who are wedded to grammar. You have to be flexible if you want to craft a message that is appealing and relevant to your readers. When choosing between words, use the more common one; common words aren’t necessarily the shortest, but they’re the most familiar to the reader.
Contractions are generally fine—they’re friendly, conversational, and engaging. However, Foley noted that some contractions are easier than others for readers to understand.
Easier contractions include:
Harder contractions include:
Stick to common verb tenses, such as the simple present and simple past. Try not to use other tenses, like the present progressive, in your plain language writing.
The present tense can work well for both present and future situations (for example, “I work tomorrow”), so if possible, eliminate the “will” and use the present.
Whenever possible, use regular rather than irregular verbs in the past tense. If you’ve got a choice between “talked” and “spoke,” for example, opt for the regular “talked,” whose –ed form is a clear cue to all readers that you’re using the past tense.
Phrasal verbs, such as “give up,” “take over,” and “put off,” are idiomatic and aren’t well understood by well understood by audiences with limited English. Avoid these whenever possible.
Good punctuation matters to clear communication, said Torchetti, but use punctuation minimally.
“Any extra punctuation adds clutter to a page,” she said. You can eliminate a lot of that clutter and add clarity simply by avoiding abbreviations like “e.g.” “Besides, said Torchetti, “that’s an abbreviation of a Latin phrase, and Latin has no place in plain language. Period.”
Particularly fussy punctuation marks that you should avoid include:
- the colon,
- the semicolon,
- the asterisk,
- the ellipsis,
- footnote symbols, and
Struggling readers don’t really understand the function of the colon, so try not to use it in running text. However, most readers now expect a colon to introduce a list, so, even if it’s not grammatically correct, you should include it.
“Banish the semicolon from plain language,” said Torchetti. “Semicolons are a good indication that you should be changing one sentence into two.”
Most people don’t read text in parentheses and, if they do, they can’t easily see its relationship with the rest of the sentence.
Formatting and presentation
“It’s not plain if you’ve just taken care of the text,” said Torchetti.
Struggling readers have trouble navigating a page, whether printed or online, and they can’t scan large chunks of text. Break up the text into shorter paragraphs, with plenty of white space on the page, and use meaningful titles, headings, and subheadings, which serve as signposts to guide readers. For those headings, though, use sentence case rather than title case, which can be hard to read.
Choose your fonts carefully: script fonts, for example, are hard to read, and older readers need at least a 14-point type size to read comfortably.
The layout should make the information easy to find and use. Visuals should make concepts easier to understand: illustrations that are metaphorical will confuse struggling readers, so make your images informative.
For online information, make it easy for people to navigate and go back. Avoid putting too much information on a page, and make links obvious. In the name of elegance, too many websites now make their links too hard to discern from the rest of text.
Foley and Torchetti recommend Access Ability: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design for tips on effective design for audiences with different abilities.
For a general audience in Canada, readability best practice is to aim for an average reading level of grade 8 for print and grade 6 to 8 for web, although you should adjust your reading level based on the subject matter and context.
Readability formulas, such as the Fry readability formula or the Flesch–Kincaide readability test, can be useful, but, Torchetti cautions, understand their limitations. They each measure only five to ten factors, when readability is based on about a hundred factors. How readability tests can be really useful is as tools to educate clients and to persuade them of what needs to be done to the text to make it clearer.