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Plain Language And Why It’s a Big Deal

English has become a global language. While only ten percent of people living in South Africa speak English as a first language, it has become the official spoken language in the business world. This is why writing in plain language has become essential. The plain language movement began in the 1960s as a means to get lawyers to write legal documents in a way their clients could understand. Whether or not that has been successful in the legal world is debatable, but the plain language movement has made its way into other arenas as well. If you’re writing a technical textbook or a work of fiction, plain language has a place.

What is Plain Language?

Plain language means to write in a clear, concise and correct manner. Your writing is easily understood, you use language that is familiar to your target audience, and it is presented in a logical manner.

For example, in 2003 Jungle.com won a Golden Bull Award for their response to a customer asking if they still sold blank cds.

We are currently in the process of consolidating our product range to ensure that the products that we stock are indicative of our brand aspirations. As part of our range consolidation we have also decided to revisit our supplier list and employ a more intelligent system for stock acquisition. As a result of the above certain product lines are now unavailable through jungle.com, whilst potentially remaining available from more mainstream suppliers.

“No,” would’ve been a perfectly acceptable answer.

What Plain Language Doesn’t Mean

Plain language doesn’t mean dumbing down your writing. It’s purpose is not to make people feel stupid or to offend the academics in the world. It means to communicate in a way everyone is able to understand. Plain language and user experience specialist Ginny Redish says, “It’s a matter of meeting people where they are and saving people’s time.”

If you are writing an instruction manual, even people with degrees won’t be upset if you save their time by writing in plain English.

The Benefits Of Plain Language

Keeping in mind the percentage of people who speak English as a first language in South Africa, and how the language is evolving globally, plain language would be more accessible as well as more inclusive.

There are many reasons why people have trouble reading: cognitive problems like aphasia or dyslexia, physical or vision disabilities, low literacy, or reading in a second language, but even skilled readers can have problems when they are rushed, tired, stressed or reading on a small screen.”

Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery, authors of A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences

In terms of business, it will erase ambiguity, improve customer support, and save time. And we all know, in business, time is money.

When the Canadian Government rewrote their Certificate to Register Livestock, the compliance rate raised from a disappointing 40% to an outstanding 95%! That’s huge!

How Do You Write Plain Language

So I’ve said all these great things about plain language and why it’s important, but how exactly do you write in plain language? Well, there isn’t a specific way or one set rule, but I can offer a few guidelines.

1. Get to the point:

Nobody likes to look for what you trying to say. Be clear and make your points at the beginning. Even if it’s bad news, the person wants to know from the start what to expect. Mandy Collins from Mandy Collins & Associates says, “When writing, ask yourself: Is everything there necessary, and is everything necessary there?”

3. Use strong verbs instead of verbs and adverbs:

It’s not always possible to avoid adverbs, but when you can, do it.

Original: He ran quickly across the field.

Better: He sprinted across the field.

3. Use every day words.

Write with words people use on a daily basis. Say “argued” instead of “quarreled” or “used” instead of “utilised”.

4. Be clear and precise

Vague: It occurred to me that I was in need of purchasing certain essential items from the bakery department prior to me being able to commence confectionery on my gateaux.

Clear: I needed some ingredients from the supermarket to bake my cake.

5. Put your audience first

Writing for your target audience creates trust in your institute and improves their confidence in you. If your target audience is able to read, understand, and act on what you’ve written, then you were successful!

Further Reading:

Bad Business Writing And Your Bottom Line

The Importance of Plain Language for Content Creation

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