Plain language tips to reach your readers

In February, literacy professionals learned about writing in plain language at Decoda’s webinar Plain Language Principles: Making Everyday Documents Clear with Kaitlyn Vecchio BA, MLIS.

Kaitlyn is director of the Northwest Library Federation, literacy outreach coordinator at Literacy Prince George and skilled in plain language writing.

“Librarianship is all about open access to information, providing information to people,” said Kaitlyn. “And it’s really a similar idea as plain language. It’s all about providing information to its readers clearly, so they can use that information and apply it to their daily life.”

“Whether it is reading medical documents, bank documents, even reading the Tylenol bottle – anything that you can read can be put into plain language and make your lives much easier.”

What is Plain Language?

“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” – International Plain Language Federation

Plain language:

  • orders information so that it makes sense to the reader.
  • explains technical terms and uses examples that relate to the reader’s experience.
  • uses design and layout suitable to the content and the needs of the reader.

Why is Plain Language important?

“When we’re reading, we usually scan information,” said Kaitlyn. “So, with the average person having an attention span of 8 seconds, it’s really important to make it as clear as possible.”

Literacy statistics

The following statistics stress the need for plain language:

  • 49% of Canadians struggle to understand complex text.
  • 27% of Canadians with postsecondary education struggle to understand complex text. (Worfolk, 2022)
  • 45% of British Columbians aged 16 to 65 have difficulty
    • understanding newspapers,
    • following instruction manuals,
    • reading health information
    • and other daily living tasks.
  • 52% of British Columbians aged 16 to 65 have difficulty
    • calculating interest on a car loan,
    • using information on a graph,
    • calculating medicine dosage
    • and other daily living tasks.

    (Decoda Literacy Solutions)

Benefits of plain language

  • Decrease time and costs in dealing with questions and complaints.
  • Decrease time and costs for staff training.
  • Improve effectiveness in explaining product features and safety issues.
  • Increase customer satisfaction and relations.

A clear document helps the reader to:

  • understand the information,
  • know how to apply it,
  • feel more confident,
  • and build a positive relationship with the organization.

“Think about how it will affect your work and organization if you do not write in plain language,” said Kaitlyn.

5 principles of plain language

Follow five main rules to create plain language documents:

Know your audience and purpose

When creating a document, consider:

  • Why are you writing?
  • Who will use it?
  • What do you want to achieve? (goals)
  • How many audiences are there?
  • What is their reading level?
  • Is English their first language?
  • How much do they know about the topic?
  • Does reader know terminology?

Use consistent structure

  • Use bulleted or numbered lists.
  • Use descriptive labels.
  • Use headings to divide information by category.
  • Sentences should have only 15-20 words.

Use ‘CARP’ in design

“Design goes hand in hand with plain language when you are organizing information on a document,” said Kaitlyn.

Contrast – create interest. Make contrast through type, colour, size, line thickness, shape, position, format, space (equal parts text and white space).

Alignment – create visual connection, organize the page, line up items. Don’t use more than one alignment on the page – use all left aligned, right aligned, etc.

Repetition – consistent font and headings; repeat a certain bullet or colour, bold font, etc.

Proximity – Group related items together. The reader should be able to find a beginning and end. After you’ve read, where do your eyes go?

Expression

Use everyday words and active verbs.

Hidden verb examples:

  • Conduct an analysis → analyze
  • Present a report → report
  • Do an assessment → assess
  • Provide assistance → Help

Use everyday words

  • Anticipate → expect
  • Attempt → try
  • Commence → begin
  • Implement → start

Use the words: you, your, I, we, us and our. This makes writing more personal and direct.

Reading ease evaluation

You can assess your writing’s readability by using a Flesch Reading Ease test. It measures average sentence length and syllables per word, and rates it out of 100. Higher scores are easier to read. Aim for at least 60, which is Grade 8-9 reading level. 90-100 is Grade 5 reading level and is very easy to read.

You can test your text in an online calculator like Readability Formulas or in Word.

Was this article easy to read and understand? It’s rated at 58 Flesch Reading Ease or Grade 8. Even with bullets, replacing words and shortening sentences, some of the quotes and terminology are considered difficult to read!

Resources

About us

Decoda Literacy Solutions is BC’s provincial literacy organization. We support community-based literacy programs and initiatives in over 400 communities across BC by providing resources, training and funds.

Our work supports children and families, youth, adults, Indigenous and immigrant communities to help build strong individuals, strong families and strong communities.

Find more professional development opportunities on Decoda’s training page.

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