Why You Need To Write In Plain Language

Plain language is writing that everyone can understand. You are only able to write this way if you understand exactly what it is that you want to say. Don’t think you are ‘dumbing it down’. You are communicating in a clear, simple manner. 

If you read last week’s post, you’ll remember I wrote that we have 11 official languages in South Africa. This makes our use of plain language even more important. 


What are the advantages of plain language:
  1. There is no ambiguity.
  2. It is faster to read.
  3. It is faster to write. 
Plain language guidelines:
  1. Simplify your word choice.
  2. Shorten your sentences.
  3. Shorten paragraphs.
  4. Use the active voice.
  5. Use pronouns.
  6. Use lists.
How to use readability statistics

Microsoft Word has a free tool that measures the readability of your document. There are many free online tools that you can use as well. [Read Why You Should Care About Readability Statistics] The Microsoft tool calculates the number of characters per word, the numbers of words per sentence as well as the number of sentences per paragraph. At the end you will be given a passivity percentage, a grade level, and a readability percentage. Ideally you want your grade to be around 7, your readability to be above 70% and your passive voice below 10%. 


How do you achieve this reading?  

Averages to strive for:
  1. Word choice: If you use simple words, there will be no confusion about the meaning of the word. Strive for, on average, 4 characters per word. Remember you will use many short words such as ‘is’ and ‘a’ as well as many 6 or 8 character words to achieve this average. However, you should avoid very long words.  
  2. Sentence length: If you keep your sentences short you will find it easier to remain in the active voice. You will be able to avoid tense and punctuation mistakes. Try to use sentences that have an average of 9-13 words. Remember, it’s an average. You will use five word sentences, and you will use twenty word sentences, but when you start writing 34 or 45 word sentences you should cut them.   
  3. Paragraph length: Simple words and short sentences will help you to keep your paragraphs short. Short paragraphs help to create white space. If you keep your paragraphs between 3-5 lines or sentences, you will be able to place the emphasis on the correct information. Your first sentence should be the most the important sentence and you should keep it down to one thought or point per paragraph. 
Plan your messages

By planning your messages, you will be able focus your communication. If your messages are succinct and clear you will be an effective communicator. Consider your reader. Ask this question before you start writing: What do you want the reader to do after reading your message? This will help you decide what information to include.

We’ll talk about reader habits and the importance of white space next week. 

If you are interested in learning how to improve your business writing skills, join us for The Plain Language Programme

 by Mia Botha

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    Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

    8 responses
    Hi, Mia and all! I LOVE this post!! I've been trying to get this across to people and companies for years. You say it so well!! Thank you so much for all you do to make communication so much better!! With much appreciation, Diane Mora -------- Original Message -------- Subject: [ writerswrite.co.za - New Post] Why You Need To Write In Plain (http://writerswrite.co.za) Language From: Posthaven Posts comment-algcnftnkoi8topuuyzp+1083322@posthaven.com> (mailto:comment-algcnftnkoi8topuuyzp+1083322@posthaven.com) Date: Tue, August 23, 2016 10:19 pm To: diane@dianemora.com (mailto:diane@dianemora.com)
    Thank you, Diane.
    Einstein is right. As an RN I listened as a surgeon when into great detail about how he would do a Trans Urethral Resection of the Prostate, (TURP for short) to an elderly man using technical terms. The process involves using a cutting-like instrument to open a swollen passage of the prostate that makes it difficult to urinate. After the man signed the consent form (that he understood) and the doctor left, I went into my patient's room. I asked the man, a tense worried look upon his face, "Do you understand what the doctors is going to do"" The man shook his head no. It took seven words for me to clearly explain the operation: "He's going to Roto Root you out." Relief burst forth and he smiled. All elderly men will understand that the local Roto Rooter company drills into the earth to rid sewer lines of debris.
    Thanks for the laugh, Delores. It is so true.
    4 visitors upvoted this post.