Less is More: Writing in Plain Language

What is plain language?

What words come to mind when you hear someone talk about “plain language”? “Clear,” “easily understood,” or “simple”? If you thought of these or something like them, you’d be on the right track with what makes plain language, well, “plain”. But writing in plain language means much more than just using familiar words or keeping sentences short. It’s also about your writing style, how content is organized, and knowing your audience. 

“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”

(Source: International Plain Language Federation)

Who benefits from plain language?

The use of plain language is so important that many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, require it in all public communications. And if you ask who benefits from the use of plain language, the short answer is everyone. When writing for the web, using plain language is a critical aspect of making content accessible to as many people as possible. People with low literacy levels or intellectual or learning disabilities may not be able to find or understand your content if you don’t apply plain language principles. The same goes for people whose first language is not English. Plain language isn’t about “dumbing down” your message, it’s about writing in a clear, concise and well-organized way to reach a much broader audience with information they can understand.

Plain language tips and examples

Brevity is at the core of plain language, so you might find it amusing (though perhaps not surprising) that in 2011 the U.S. federal government published a 118-page document called Federal Plain Language Guidelines. It’s a good point of reference for some of the “Dos and Don’ts” for writing in plain language. Two simple but important tips are (1) address the reader directly (for example, use pronouns like “you”) and (2) use active (not passive) voice. For example, instead of “Applicants must submit their birth certificates,” write, “You must submit your birth certificate.” Writing for your reader in a more conversational tone by addressing them directly is much more effective.

Which would you use?

  • “In order to” or “to”
  • “Preclude” or “prevent”
  • “Solicit” or “ask for”
  • “With the exception of” or “except for”

In the list above, the second option is the plain language option. Unnecessary and complex words easily distract from your message. Don’t let words get in the way—their job is to inform. In the worst case scenario, wordy or complex language may drive people away from your website. So, keep it simple, familiar and straightforward. The UK’s Plain English Campaign has a list of specific words/phrases to avoid when writing in plain language. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • commence (start)
  • consequently (so)
  • in accordance with (under, keeping to)
  • prior to (before)
  • should you wish (if you want)

Keep it short

Long paragraphs (more than 150 words) discourage readers from trying to understand your material. The same goes for long sentences. Most experts recommend that sentences on a website should not be more than 15 or 20 words. Drawn out sentences with many dependent clauses run the risk of putting your reader to sleep—or making them flee your website! An exaggerated example is below to make the point:

Don’t write like this.Write like this.
It was extraordinarily obvious to the multiple guests who had been in attendance at the party that in no way could it be concluded that he found the gathering in the least diverting or entertaining.Everyone at the party knew he didn’t have a good time.
An example of a long, drawn out sentence and its plain language alternative.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) & Plain Language

“Language complexity is an often-underestimated factor in Web Accessibility. Early research and development within Web Accessibility mainly focused on perceptibility and operability. In recent years, aspects that support understandability, such as content design, structure and wording, have gained increasing importance.”

(Source: “How to Use Plain and Easy-to-Read Language for a Positive User Experience on Websites”)

While the WCAG don’t go too far in addressing plain language as an element of accessibility, they do make clear the impact of reading level, content organization and descriptive headings on accessibility. For example, success criterion 3.1.5 gives recommendations related to reading level. Techniques related to this success criterion include:

  • Having a single topic or subtopic per paragraph
  • Using sentences that are no longer than 25 words
  • Avoiding professional jargon and slang
  • Including a glossary to define complex terms in plain language
  • Using bulleted or numbered lists instead of paragraphs
  • Writing in the active voice 

WCAG success criteria 3.1.3 (unusual words) and 3.1.4 (abbreviations) also provide technical guidance that can help the reading comprehension of people with intellectual and learning disabilities, as well as those who have low vision and use a screen magnifier. Success criterion 2.4.6 describes the benefits of clear headings for people with limited short-term memory. These site visitors benefit when section titles make it possible to predict what each section contains.

How you organize or structure what you write is as important as your writing style. Most website visitors skim over content instead of reading all the text from top to bottom. The last thing a reader wants is to collide with a “wall of words”—a page densely populated with 20 or 30 lines of words in four or five consecutive paragraphs. It’s better to divide your content into chunks, often with white space in between, so that your information can be better navigated and understood. Bullets and meaningful headers can also help achieve a structure that improves how your content is organized.

Plain language writing resources

Writing in plain language is not easy and has to be intentional. But the rewards for both the writer and the reader are many. Check out some of the resources below to get on the path to becoming a plain language pro.