Using plain language means writing in a way that your intended audiences can immediately find, understand, and use your messages and information. It’s not about “dumbing down” your message but making sure that you are communicating effectively with your target readers.
Plain language is relevant, even (especially?) for academic and professional writing. 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 🙂
(If you’re not fully convinced that plain language principles can also improve academic writing, take a look at these articles.)
- 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.)
☘ 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.