The basics of plain language

Publication date
Friday 25 August 2023

Writing in plain language makes your content accessible to more people. Get started by learning 4 basic elements of plain language.

In the last Style Manual blog I talked about how to encourage leaders to support plain language. This time I’m talking about how to write in plain language.

Learning to write in plain language can feel daunting. This is particularly so if you’re used to writing in a formal or technical style. But plain language benefits everyone, so it is worth the effort.

Just remember, plain language is not ‘dumbing down’; it is making your content accessible to more people. Even people with the highest literacy levels benefit because they tend to be time‑poor and have the most to read.

The most important element of plain language is understanding your users and what they need from your content. The best way to do this is to do user research. User research is a blog in itself and, realistically, it’s not always possible to test your content. So today I’ll focus on some practical things you can do to make your content easier to read.

There are 4 basic elements of plain writing. If you consider these elements, you’ll be well on the way to writing in plain language. They are:

  • structure
  • word choice
  • active voice
  • short sentences.

Structure

Put the most important information first. Don’t bury it in the middle or at the end. Your users may not make it that far.

Most users scan content. Then they might go back and focus on the information that is important to them. Use well-ordered sentences, paragraphs, headings and lists to make your content scannable.

Follow the subject–verb–object order when you structure sentences. This structure forms the basis of plain language writing.

Have only one main idea per paragraph. Including more than one idea makes it difficult to tell where one idea ends and the other starts. Start the paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces the main idea. Topic sentences help people follow your meaning as they scan. Use active voice to ensure that the main idea is the subject of the topic sentence. Users might skip your content if they don’t see what they need quickly.

Headings help to signpost information. Users use headings to understand the scope of content and to navigate to the information that interests them.

Write headings that are clear and short, less than 70 characters. Make sure the heading relates to the content directly below it. Write all headings in sentence case and use minimal punctuation.

A good way to present a series of items is to use lists. Use bullet lists to:

  • help users skim information
  • group related information
  • help users understand how items relate to each other.

Use numbered lists to show an order of steps or to arrange information by importance.

Headings, lists and paragraphs also help to break up content. Structured content is less intimidating than long walls of text.

Word choice

Keywords are words that are commonly associated with your topic. They are words that users are likely to use as search terms. Identifying keywords helps you choose words that are familiar to your users – everyday words and phrases that people understand.

Choose words that are well understood by most people. Over 40% of Australians have a low reading level. Using simple words makes content more accessible to people with:

  • low literacy
  • disability
  • English as a second language.

Most complex words have simpler alternatives. The Style Manual has a list of simple words to replace complicated words.

Don’t use jargon; it excludes people. Jargon is specialised language used by a specific group. It’s likely to include technical terms or acronyms that are not understood by people outside that group.

Here are some ways to convey complex information so that it is easier to understand:

  • explain technical terms
  • include a glossary
  • provide a plain language summary
  • include pictures and diagrams.

Jargon, complex language and technical words slow down the scanning process. Users must stop to decode those words before they can understand the sentence.

Active voice

Put simply, in sentences:

  • active voice emphasises the person or thing doing the action
  • passive voice emphasises the receiver of the action.

Example

Active: The minister made a speech.

Passive: A speech was made by the minister.

In active voice, the subject (person or thing) performs the action, making the sentence more direct. (Remember the subject–verb–object structure.) Active voice makes it easier for users to understand who is doing what.

Passive voice:

  • can cause confusion about who is doing what and who is responsible for what
  • creates distance between you and the user – it is less personal
  • often makes sentences longer.

Short sentences

Your message can get lost in long sentences. Keep sentences to an average of 15 words and no longer than 25 words. A simple sentence contains only one main clause. To make sentences shorter, it’s okay to start a sentence with a conjunction such as ‘and’ or ‘but’. But don’t overdo it. The occasional compound sentence of less than 25 words adds variety and flow to your writing. Just make sure it’s still easy to scan.

Long sentences take longer to understand and place a heavier cognitive load on the user. This is because the user needs to read the whole sentence, and possibly backtrack, before being able to understand the information.

Positive sentences are usually shorter than negative sentences. Positive sentences present information in an affirmative way.

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Plain language benefits everyone

Poorly written content requires attention and obscures meaning. Users usually don’t notice when something is written in plain language – they just understand it.

Remember, plain language doesn’t oversimplify your content. Instead, it makes the content easier to understand and is accessible to a wider audience. 

We’ve looked at 4 basic elements of plain language:

  • structuring content to make it navigable and easy to scan
  • choosing words with care and avoiding jargon so that your message is understood
  • using active voice to ensure clarity and build a connection with users
  • using shorter sentences to aid comprehension and lighten the cognitive load.

Plain language is an essential communication tool that supports comprehension, accessibility, credibility, trust and efficiency. In a world where information overload is a constant challenge, the ability to write simply and clearly is an important skill. A skill that benefits everyone.

Susan Baird is the Style Manual engagement officer