“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
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
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.
Source: Open Government at the National Archives
- Write for your reader, not yourself.
- Use pronouns when you can.
- State your major point(s) first before going into details.
- Stick to your topic.
- Limit each paragraph to one idea and keep it short.
- Write in active voice. Use the passive voice only in rare cases.
- Use short sentences as much as possible.
- Use everyday words. If you must use technical terms, explain them on the first reference.
- Omit unneeded words.
- Keep the subject and verb close together.
- Use headings, lists, and tables to make reading easier.
- Proofread your work, and have a colleague proof it as well.
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]
- What Is Plain Language? (Plain Language Association International): Five things to consider when drafting a plain-language document.
- Five Steps to Plain Language (Center for Plain Language): Similar to the above but slightly more detailed: five steps to help you develop plain-language content.
- Writing and Design Tips (National Adult Literacy Agency, Ireland): Clear and nicely designed handbook with “tips to make your materials easier to read and understand, especially for adults with unmet literacy needs.” (Thanks to Claire O Riordan, Plain English Coordinator at NALA, for the recommendation.)
- NARA Style Guide [PDF] (National Archives): A significant portion of this style guide gives clear guidance on how to write in plain language.
- Plain Writing Checklist (National Archives): A quick checklist to make sure you’ve followed the plain-language guidelines. (You can download a PDF from the page.)
- US Federal Plain Language Guidelines (US Government): Provides detailed steps on how to write plain language. You can explore each section online or download the PDF of US Plain Language Guidelines.
- A Plain English Handbook [PDF] (US Securities and Exchange Commission, 1998): A thorough and attractive book that practices what it preaches! I especially like that it discusses design as an important part of plain language.
- 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.)
☘ Plain language in academia
- “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing,” Victoria Clayton, The Atlantic (26 October 2015): An engaging take on why academic writing tends to be more complex than necessary and the movement to change that.
- “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Applied Cognitive Psychology 20: 139–156 (2006): Authors of complex writing are viewed as less intelligent than those who write simply and clearly, according to this study that won Dr. Oppenheimer the Ig Nobel award.
- “Wanted: Articulate Scientists,” Lily Whiteman, Science (10 November 2000): Reasons why scientists would “win” by using plain language, including more funding and making breakthroughs better known.
- “Say What? The Benefits of Plain Language in Academia,” Sasha Im, University of Washington: A presentation that gives you–straight up–reasons why plain language is useful for academia too. (Link directly opens PDF.)
- “Why Simple Language Isn’t So Simple: The Struggle to Create Plain Language in Documentation,” Tom Johnson (27 July 2017): A thoughtful review of reasons why it’s hard for academics to write in plain language, especially when the paper introduces new terms and concepts.
- “What Is a Lay Summary?“, Jayashree Rajagopalan, Editage Insights (28 June 2019): Even if you’re not fully convinced that academic writing should use plain language, you might agree that a “lay summary”—meant for the layperson interested in your work—would be useful.
☘ Other useful sites
- Plain English Campaign:
Their plain English tools are both useful and hilarious. I particularly like the A-Z of alternative words, which gives you plain-English alternatives to words/phrases like “advantageous” (use “useful” or “helpful” instead) and “by means of” (use “by”), “due to the fact of” (use “because,” “as”), etc. Try out the Gobbledygook generator or the football gobbledygook generator for some laughs.
I haven’t found any inexpensive and easily accessible online training on plain language writing (yet), but here are a few resources to get you started.
- PlainLanguage.gov: The US government offers links to videos and other resources that anyone can learn from.
- National Institutes of Health: Plain Language: Getting Started or Brushing Up: A concise introduction to plain language. You can download a checklist and also print a certificate of completion.
- Monash University: Writing Clearly, Concisely and Precisely: An online tutorial with a few simple activities to practice writing plain language.
- Plain Language Training: International Readability Centre’s introduction to plain language concepts and how to put them into practice.
Cover image by Free-Photos via Pixabay