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Plain Language: The Power of Writing with Clarity

Do you ever find yourself reading something that feels like a never-ending maze of confusing words and jargon? If so, you’re not alone. Many people struggle to understand complex or poorly written texts. That’s where plain language comes to the rescue, making information accessible to all without “dumbing it down.”

What is Plain Language?

Plain language is all about communicating effectively. It’s not about underestimating your audience’s intelligence; instead, it’s about making your message crystal clear and easy to understand. When you use plain language, you:

  • Reach Everyone: Plain language is a superhero that bridges the gap for those who may struggle with reading.
  • Help All Readers: It ensures that everyone, regardless of their reading abilities, can understand your message.
  • Prevent Misunderstandings: Say goodbye to confusion and errors caused by unclear writing.
  • Save Time: By getting your message across clearly the first time, you save time for both you and your readers.

Readability: Unleashing the Power of Clarity

Readability is the measure of how easy a piece of writing is to understand. It’s about matching the reading level of your text to your readers’ understanding level. Imagine two brochures: one has illustrations supported by complex text, while the other has no illustrations and uses simple text. Surprisingly, the first one is more readable. But the best option is illustrations with clear and plain language.

How to Write Clearly and Effectively

Before diving into your writing adventure, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is my audience? Understanding your readers is key.
  • Why am I writing this document? Define your purpose.
  • What do I want to say? Be concise and to the point.
  • How will my reader use the information in this document? Tailor your content accordingly.
  • How shall I organize the information? Structuring your content is crucial.
  • How shall I present the information? Think about visuals, fonts, and design.

General Guidelines for Plain Language Writing

  1. Write Directly: Speak to your readers using “you” instead of referring to them in the third person.
  2. Verbs Over Nouns: Don’t turn verbs into nouns. Use action words.
  3. Step-by-Step Instructions: Write instructions in the order you want them to be followed.
  4. Active Voice: Opt for active voice, not passive, for clearer communication.
  5. Simplicity in Sentences: Use complete sentences only when necessary.
  6. Highlight Key Points: Separate critical points from the text to grab your readers’ attention.
  7. Consistency Matters: List items using the same grammatical form.
  8. Positive Tone: Keep your tone positive whenever possible.
  9. No Jargon: Say no to complex terminology.
  10. Explain Difficult Words: Clarify unfamiliar words within their context.

Text Design: The Art of Readability

The way your document looks can significantly impact its readability. Follow these tips for a reader-friendly format:

  • Left-Aligned Text: The easiest format to read.
  • White Space: Don’t fear it. Embrace double spacing and leave one-inch margins.
  • No Semi-Colons in Bullets: Keep it simple and clear.
  • Avoid Columns: They can be distracting.
  • Indent Important Info: Highlight essential content.
  • Use a Serif Font: Try Bookman Old Style in 12-point font.
  • Font Consistency: Stick to one or two fonts.
  • Font Size: Go for at least 12-point font size.
  • Italics Clarity: Ensure italics are not smaller than standard fonts.
  • No Ornate Fonts: Stay away from overly decorative fonts.

Features: Less Is More

Adding visual elements to your document can make it appealing, but be mindful not to overdo it. Excessive features can hinder readability. Remember, the goal is readability, not distracting the reader with fancy designs.

Communication is Key

In the end, the purpose of your writing is to communicate. If your document is cluttered and distracting, you defeat the very purpose of writing in the first place.

When preparing a document using plain language, consider this checklist to ensure your success:

  • Reading Audience: Understand your readers and choose the best format for your message.
  • Purpose: Define the “why” and make sure you’ve included all the vital information.
  • Organization: Arrange your content according to your readers’ needs.
  • Tone: Write directly to your readers and maintain a helpful, personal tone.
  • Style: Keep paragraphs short, sentences clear, and use familiar words.
  • Design: Prioritize an attractive design with plenty of white space.
  • Checking with your Reading Audience: Seek feedback from a sample group of readers to refine your document further.

In a world full of complex information, plain language is the beacon of clarity, ensuring that your message reaches everyone. So, go ahead and embrace plain language to connect with your readers effectively!

Learn more about Clear and Plain Language

Literacy Quebec‘s new LQ Academy is a collection of free eLearning courses designed for anyone who wants to explore and learn more about a wide range of literacy-related topics. If you interact with the general public, create communications material, or are just curious about literacy, you should check them out! One of the courses currently offered is Lit 103: Practising Clear Writing and Design.

The Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) has a lot of great information, including information in French and other languages.

Our Resource section, under development, has a few additional resources. More will be added over time!

Literacy Unlimited is also available to speak to your organization about Clear and Plain Language. Contact us at info@literacyunlimited.ca if you would like to discuss hosting a workshop.

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