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Words to the Wise

Let's Be Plain About Plain Language

Many writers, readers, and—sadly—educators hold misconceptions about plain language: for example, it is aimed at people who can't read well; it is about dumbing down; it is dull. None of this is true. On the contrary, plain language is about communicating clearly and persuasively, about recognizing your readers' needs, and above all about writing to your readers.

The Plain Language Network says it best: "Plain language is not a simplified style of writing. It involves more than replacing jargon and complex language with shorter sentences and familiar words. Plain language looks at the whole message—from the reader's point of view." This means keeping your reader in mind as you write and working hard to achieve clarity, good organization, and an inviting presentation.

We have all received incomprehensible letters, notices, instruction sheets, even advertising, and have faced forms that try our patience. As we grit our teeth we wonder why the people who turn out this stuff insist on wasting our time. The problem for writers is that the style of writing that produces this bafflegab has crept into everyday speech and become entrenched, to the point where the best intentioned among us are letting it slip into our creative writing. Instead of the clear and rhythmic, we use the obtuse and clunky (facilitate rather than help). We clog our sentences with little qualifiers (the traveller was a bit confused rather than the traveller was confused, poor guy!) and tiny words (in view of the fact that rather than because). We change verbs into nouns (the requirement of the role is that rather than the job requires). We kill the action with the passive voice (the train was missed by Joe rather than Joe missed the train). We deaden our argument with unnecessary preambles (I would argue that).

Through diligent editing we can eradicate these habits that suck the life out of our writing. This, too, is what plain language is about—its principles will help you improve all your writing.


Plain Train: Plain Language Online Training:

Don Watson, Death Sentences: How Clichés, Weasel Words, and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language. Toronto: Penguin, 2003.

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