This month’s Plain Language of Community Practice meeting featured Katherine Spivey’s presentation, Plain Language Spectrum: Every Step Counts! In this highly useful DigitalGov University (DGU) webinar, she explains how you can move forward with plain language even when you don’t have permission to edit copy, followed by a half hour Q & A session.
Many people don’t get plain language (also known as plain communication or plain writing) right the very first time, but through practice, can gain clarity and improve their plain language skills. For newbies who may not feel 100 percent sure about diving into this concept, the guidelines below are helpful, but optional; you can visit PlainLanguage.gov to find other ways to apply plain language to your specific content.
What exactly is plain language?
Plain language has three basic elements—they need to find it easily, understand it the first time they hear or read it, and be able to use what they’ve learned to meet their needs.
In content presentation, the audience is often faced with a “big wall of words” or content with several large paragraphs, no headers, and nothing to break up the overabundance of text. As writers and editors for content, we don’t always have permission to edit copy. However, this shouldn’t stop one from creating a visually aesthetic and easy-to-understand medium.
How do I start?
Spivey notes that it’s difficult to read across large blocks of text, particularly electronically, as it is easy to skip a line and get confused. In addition, if it’s too verbose, you will lose what the sentence is trying to say, when the ultimate goal is for readers to understand what you’re saying.
She suggests that those unfamiliar with plain language take baby steps before diving in entirely on the more advanced side of the plain language spectrum. Such steps could include things like:
Break it up
Break up long paragraphs with whitespace and bulleted lists. Add headers to guide users and define sections (e.g., Key Steps, Introduction, Overview). Use shorter, more concise sentences; add periods at natural talking points within a narrative or presentation.
Where appropriate, you can italicize text or make it bold, or change text color, typeface (or font family), or size.
This can be a hard sell in government, but can make it easier for people to follow what you’re saying. People are beginning to expect this in web writing as third-person sounds off-putting and standoffish; instead, say: our, we, us, they, you, or your agency.
Change an inappropriately passive voice to active voice
Passive voice leaves the actor unknown. For instance, “Mistakes were made” is passive because the statement doesn’t explain who made the mistake. English sentences rely on a subject, a verb, and an object. If you invert this order, it forces the reader to do more unnecessary work trying to understand it. A great way to tell if a sentence is passive is to add “by zombies” at the end. If it makes sense, you have probably used passive voice.
To sum it all up, use white space, formatting, pronouns, and active voice to make it easier for readers to find out what you want them to do.
Until we get the capability to turn everything into plain language with the click of a button, consider what the reader needs to know and how you can make it easier to read, scan, and do. Every step that you take towards changing something into plain language counts.
The Question and Answer portion covers the last half hour of the meeting. In it, Spivey addressed some questions and comments from participants that included her guidance on:
- for gender-neutral language, use of you, your, yours is a bit more inviting to the audience than they or them
- in the process of making plain language clearer, try to not focus on plain language in early drafts—instead, take breaks between steps so you can see the content with fresh eyes
to get buy-in for using plain language from your editor and/or supervisor, build trust and credibility
- don’t make word substitutions unless it’s really going to change and improve the content,
- don’t refer to writing as good or bad, and
- try to make only helpful suggestions, like, “I’m concerned about something in your writing that may be weakening your point and making it less effective.”
plain language resources and groups, include:
- Federal Plain Language Guidelines on PlainLanguage.gov
- PlainLanguage.gov’s listing of federal agency plain language pages and contacts
- PlainLanguage.gov on social media (Facebook, Twitter)
- the Plain Language Community of Practice
- Clarity, an international association of professionals promoting plain legal language
- the adoption of plain language principles by legal staff and offices in the federal government differs from agency to agency, but, generally many lawyers are in favor of plain language because it increases compliance and decreases time spent on enforcement
- “before and after” examples on agency websites with plain language content (see list), PlainLanguage.gov, and CenterForPlainLanguage.org
- examples of plain language success stories included the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the state of Washington’s Department of Revenue, and, in general, medical and health literacy