Plain language for academic & professional writing

Plain language for academic & professional writing

“Plain language” is language that your audience can understand easily and conveys your message clearly. Plain language principles are useful for all professional writing, even academic writing.

Plain language principles can be used in all types of professional writing, even academic writing. They will let you get your message across clearly and accessibly.

Plain language is described as

Plain language is communication whose 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

Promoting plain language has its roots in the attempt to make legal language–which is notoriously difficult to understand–comprehensible to the layperson.

But it’s easy to see how it can apply to academic writing–especially if you’re repackaging your academic work for a wider audience.

Which version do you find easier to read? They are all trying to convey the same thing (perhaps the author would not agree; what do you think as the reader? And one version might not suit all readers).


It establishes empirically and advances the hypothesis that theological characteristics that were facilitative of the birth and persistence of fundamental cultural traits instigated the evolution of compatible linguistic traits that have nurtured and augmented the dissemination and the intergenerational transference of these cultural traits over the expanse of human history.1

Stats: 1 sentence, 50 words, 30th-grade (!) reading level


We show that certain features of religion helped unique cultural traits to emerge. Those cultural traits, in turn, led to the evolution of complementary linguistic traits, which made it possible for humans to pass down their culture over the generations.

Stats: 2 sentences, avg. 20 words per sentence, 40 words total, 12th-grade reading level

An alternative

Religion shaped unique cultural traits, which in turn influenced language. And that language then allowed humans to spread and pass down their culture.

Stats: 2 sentences, avg. 12 words per sentence, 23 words total, 5th-grade reading level

I’m sure there are even better ways to reword the original sentence, but hopefully, this gives you an idea of how plain language might work in academia.

It’s not about “dumbing down” your writing; it’s about tailoring it to your audience in a way that they can understand what you are saying.

Top principles for plain language

Here’s a list of easy tips to help you write plain language, from the US National Archives:

Plain language is clear, concise, organized, and appropriate for the intended audience.

  1. Write for your reader, not yourself.
  2. Use pronouns when you can.
  3. State your major point(s) first before going into details.
  4. Stick to your topic.
  5. Limit each paragraph to one idea and keep it short.
  6. Write in active voice. Use the passive voice only in rare cases.
  7. Use short sentences as much as possible.
  8. Use everyday words. If you must use technical terms, explain them on the first reference.
  9. Omit unneeded words.
  10. Keep the subject and verb close together.
  11. Use headings, lists, and tables to make reading easier.
  12. Proofread your work, and have a colleague proof it as well.
Source: Open Government at the National Archives

Plain language resources 2

There are great resources out there to help you write in plain language. Here are some to get you started—and the rest is practice 🙂 [LIST EDITED: 14 July 2021]



  • Cutts, Martin. Oxford Guide to Plain English. Oxford University Press, 2020. If you want one book on plain English, this is the one. Clearly organized and fun to read, it’s one I keep at hand. Highly recommended!
  • Gowers, Ernest A., and Rebecca Gowers. Plain Words. Penguin Books, 2014. Updated by Rebecca Gowers, the original book was written by Sir Ernest over 60 years ago but is (sadly?) still relevant as ever. The examples will keep you chuckling. (The 1954 version is in the public domain in some countries.)

See also my favorite books on writing and presenting.

Plain language in academia

Other useful sites and videos


“The Right to Understand.” Sandra Fisher-Martins at TEDxO’Porto, March 2011. (It’s in Portugese but transcripts are available in 14 languages.)
“Demand to Understand: How Plain Language Makes Life Simpler.” Deborah Bosley at TEDxCharlotte. Not sure of the event date; the video is from 2015.

Training (free)

Here are a few free online resources to help you practice plain language.

Paid courses

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Cover image by Free-Photos via Pixabay

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  1. This may sound over the top and yes, it’s nonsense, but it is inspired by a real-life sentence from a published paper.
  2. They are not in alphabetical order. I put the sources I like best or find more relevant at the top of each cluster.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Quick tip: Rephrase negatives into positives | The Clarity Editor

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