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What the Heck is Plain Language?

Can your citizens find what they want on your agency website? And once they find it, do they understand it? To make digital information and tasks easy to find and understand, it’s imperative for governments to apply plain language best practices to all their web content.

What is Plain Language?

Plain language is a movement that started by simplifying unintelligible legal documents, and has now been embraced by governments and businesses around the world. Plain language is clear, concise, and easily understood the first time someone reads or hears it.

Keep in mind that the average U.S. adult reads at an eight-grade level, which makes using plain, easy to understand language on your website even more imperative in terms of user experience. For example, instead of “Economic Development” say “Business” and instead of “Solid Waste” say “Trash”. In addition to improving website user experience, plain, inclusive language also makes governments feel more approachable and human – so leave the legal language and formalities at the door and try to address your website audience like you would a friend or acquaintance: in plain language.

Did you know that Plain Language is a law?

In addition to plain language being a best practice for government writing, it also became a law when President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The purpose behind the law was to establish a “system of transparency, public participation and collaboration” as noted in the President’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.

The Plain Language Act requires that federal agencies use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” The idea is “to enhance citizen access to government information and services by establishing that government documents issued to the public must be written clearly.” Both written and electronic documents are covered by the Plain Language Act, and while this law only applies to federal agencies, the intent of the law is applicable to all government agencies and encourages best practices for writing in a clear, concise and well-organized manner. In addition to being a law, plain language also has deep historical roots. Consider these historical quotes about the importance of writing clearly from the Plain Language website:

“Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in a few words.” – Apocrypha

“The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.” – Hippocrates

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Plain Language and Content Strategy

Plain language and content strategy are cousins in the communication world. While content strategy has its roots in marketing and takes a high level approach to the strategy, planning and structure of communications, both encourage content authors to use common sense and a practical approach to writing in a clear manner. These techniques include identifying your audience, organizing your thoughts, eliminating unnecessary content, putting the most important information at the beginning, using descriptive headings, writing in short sections, and using bullets.

To see how your website measures up, conduct usability testing to see if your users can complete the following types of tasks:

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Use what they find to meet their needs

If users are unable to complete these tasks, you’ll want to consider re-writing your content or even redesigning your website to help make finding and completing tasks more intuitive. You should also consider having your website contributors complete a content strategy and writing for the web training course to educate them on how to create engaging and easy to understand content. To learn more about plain language and content strategy training, contact Granicus for a free Content Strategy Consultation.

Plain Language Checklist for the Web

If you are looking for a quick checklist, the National Archives offers this top 10 list for using Plain Language:

  1. Write for your reader, not yourself.
  2. Use pronouns when you can.
  3. State your major/most important point(s) first before going into details.
  4. Stick to your topic.
  5. Limit each paragraph to one idea and keep it short.
  6. Write in active voice. Use the passive voice only in rare cases.
  7. Use short sentences as much as possible.
  8. Use everyday, simple words. If you must use technical terms, explain them on the first reference.
  9. Omit unneeded words; instead use clear, concise and straight-forward language.
  10. Keep the subject and verb close together.
  11. Use headings, lists, bullets and tables to make reading easier.
  12. Proofread your work, and have a colleague proof it as well.

For more tips, check out this TEDx video, where plain language expert Sandra Fischer suggests that you write in a way that your grandmother could understand:


Where can I find out more about Plain Language?

Here are some more resources for you to check out:

At Granicus, we specialize in helping agencies research and implement user-focused improvements, and are always happy to discuss your particular website needs. Request a free consultation now.