Ditch the frou-frou and choose plain language instead

If you haven't heard of plain language writing, don't worry. It's not rocket science, in fact, it's rather simple and easy to do. But it does take an awareness of how you write in order to avoid confusion for your readers. For example, academic and government writing is notorious for ambiguous, jargon-thick text that is hard to read and understand. But with a few quick fixes, you can transform your text in a way that will increase the reader's connection with your message. 

I first heard of plain language writing several years ago when I worked for the federal government. It was always talked about but often ignored, even by me. The government, much like any other organization, has its own nuanced language and culture, making it far too easy for employees to forget about the audience (often the public) and fail to write a clear message.

So to brush up on my plain language skills, I enrolled in a technical writing class at Simon Fraser University as part of its editing certificate program. Right away I was amazed at how serious the plain language movement is! Did you know there's an international Plain Language Association? There's also the Plain Language Network which promotes 39 steps to plain language writing. To give you a summary of writing tips, here are 10 things I learned that can help you be a better writer.

1) Figure out the main point of what you are trying to say and make sure you say it.

2) Write in the active voice, not the passive voice. Example: She locked the door at 9 p.m. vs. The door was locked at 9 p.m.

3) Use parallel construction. Example: We like to play tennis, basketball, and soccer. vs. We like to play tennis, shooting basketball, and there is soccer, too. 

4) Write for your audience: use the right tone and word choice.

5) Use consistent words throughout your document (unlike creative writing which uses synonyms). 

6) Eliminate unnecessary words in your sentence such as "there is," "it was, "here are," "in conjunction with," "which," and "that".

7) Avoid making verbs into nouns by adding endings such as -tion, -ment, -ness. 

8) Don't be pretentious. Avoid words such as facilitate, optimize, accommodate, and concerning.

9) Don't use clichés or unecessary formalities.

10) Keep sentences short and to the point. 

Happy writing, everyone!

Stacey D. Atkinson is the author of Stuck, a novel she published via her independent company Mirror Image Publishing.  

2 comments

  • Lisette
    Lisette
    Just checking in on one my favorite former colleagues. Sounds like things are going well for you. Did you know that one of my summmer jobs in Vancouver back in the 90s was working for the Plain Language Institute? I still remember that! Take care, Lisette

    Just checking in on one my favorite former colleagues. Sounds like things are going well for you. Did you know that one of my summmer jobs in Vancouver back in the 90s was working for the Plain Language Institute? I still remember that!
    Take care,
    Lisette

  • Stacey
    Stacey
    Hi, Lisette! Nice to hear from you. It doesn't surprise me that you worked for the Plain Language Institute because I always remember you being a really great writer--very clear and to the point!

    Hi, Lisette! Nice to hear from you. It doesn't surprise me that you worked for the Plain Language Institute because I always remember you being a really great writer--very clear and to the point!

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