Information in plain English

By Dana P Skopal, PhD

Do you know the term ‘plain English’ or ‘plain language’? Plain English is not easy to define, especially if you are writing a range of texts for a broad audience. In Australia, the Law Reform Commission of Victoria in 1990 defined plain English as ordinary English that was expressed clearly to convey a message simply and effectively. The US Federal Plain Language Guidelines provide more specific advice, and list writing steps such as:

  • use active voice
  • use pronouns to speak directly to readers
  • use short, simple words
  • write short sentences
  • keep subject, verb, and object close together.

These are good writing tips. If you are writing for a diverse group of employees, what steps do you take to make your message effective and be understood by all readers? Do you check your text against such writing points as listed above?

Another approach is to think of planning (drafting) a message as planning the information design. When writing, information design is taken in its broadest context, and refers to the intricate blending of:

  • content structure (order of information and where you place your main points)
  • appropriate wording (use shorter words and clear sentences)
  • visual formatting (good layout or document design).

This combination of  information ‘steps’ – structure, wording and layout – were observable in our research findings when we tested the readability of government information. If your reader can locate your key message easily and the language and design assist them to understand all the detail, you have produced a good document. So think beyond plain English, and plan your texts around structuring your key points early in your document, using clear wording and applying layout.

Law Reform Commission of Victoria (1990). Appendix 1. Guidelines for drafting in Plain English. Melbourne: Victorian Government.

Plain Language Action and Information Network. (2011). Federal Plain Language Guidelines. Retrieved from http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/FederalPLGuidelines/FederalPLGuidelines.pdf

Skopal, D. P. (2016). Public information documents: understanding readers’ perspectives. In Alison Black, Paul Luna, Ole Lund, & Sue Walker (eds.), Information Design: Research and Practice, 463–476. London: Routledge.

 

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