A communication is in plain language if the language, 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
When drafting a plain language text, there are 5 general areas to consider:
Start by considering what you want to achieve in writing a communication. If it succeeds, what will happen? How might you measure that?
Then you should think about:
Assessing your audience in this way will help you select the best mix of the following language and design elements to employ.
To select the right structure for a communication, ask yourself:
For example, a procedure may be best organized in a chronological order, while a longer report may have a series of topic-based chapters.
Principles to apply as you refine your structure include:
Increasingly, the visual appearance of a communication is just as important as the structure and language. Here, there are 3 areas to consider:
Make sure that the layout and margins include plenty of white space as that helps to separate different parts of the text.
Use meaningful headings to help readers navigate.
Select a font and type size that will be easy to read.
Make sure there is plenty of contrast between the text and the background, and the spacing between lines and paragraphs is at least the same as the size of the type.
Also consider visual devices such as tables, diagrams, photos, charts, and bulleted lists to present information in an accessible and engaging form.
Finally, think about the wording. While some techniques will vary from language to language, key areas to consider include:
Tone: use personal pronouns and write in a formal yet conversational style.
Word choice: use the simplest word that conveys your meaning.
Jargon: avoid jargon unless your reader is familiar with it, and if they are not, explain technical terms.
Sentences: keep sentences between 15-20 words on average, with individual sentences no longer than 30-35 words.
Verbs: in most cases, prefer the active voice rather than the passive. Write “I read this page” rather than “This page was read by me.”
Always evaluate whether your text is likely to succeed before you send it.
At a simple level, this may involve editing the communication against a standard or checklist, or having another person review it.
Wherever possible, carry out some user testing with your audience. This might be through surveys, interviews, or testing with people who are representative of your readers.
User testing may not always be necessary or cost effective, such as with an internal email. But it becomes more important for a document that has a wider audience, like a user manual.