2020 has left many of us sadder and wiser. One thing this year has taught us is that clear communication is vital – even a matter of life and death. A quick google reveals endless articles about ‘confusing’ and ‘unclear’ messaging on Covid. While before we might have seen the idea of plain language as an ideal, now it is clear that organisations that deal with the public need to communicate in a way that is clear, understandable on a first reading, and unambiguous.
In Ireland this new recognition of the importance of plain language ties in with the commitment in the 2020 Programme for Government to the use of plain language in communications from the public sector.
Plain language is not just easy to read, it allows readers to do three things:
• find what they need • understand what they find the first time they read it • use what they find to meet their needs.
So, plain language is not some airy-fairy concept – it has real practical value. Organisations that adopt plain language see cost savings. People who deal with state bodies have easier (and fairer) access to services and easier engagement.
The field of plain language is surprisingly complex for such a new area of study. But for writers who want the basics, following these guidelines is a good place to start:
1 Keep sentences as short as possible 2 Be concise and direct 3 Use familiar words instead of unusual words 4 Use the active rather than the passive as far as possible 5 Keep the reader in mind at all times 6 Keep plain language principles in mind at the design, writing and editing stages 7 Make sure that text is well organised and logically laid out.
I wrote this piece in plain language, and the Microsoft Word readability tool gave it the following scores:
A score of 59.5 ranks the piece just under: ‘easily understood by 13- to 15-year-olds’. This is a reasonable score for a piece aimed at a professional audience. The grade level score of 8.6 means that around 80% of people in the US would understand the text. The calculations are basic, but they give a useful idea of how readable a piece of text is.