top of page
  • Margaret Phillips

What Is Plain Language?

Think of those documents that drive you wild, the ones where your eyes glaze over as you struggle to read: You can't find the information you need. The language is dense, too hard to understand. You may even feel anxious, especially when you need information to make a decision.

When we can't understand and use information, our lives are affected in untold ways. We can miss opportunities and be disadvantaged.

That's where plain language comes in.

Plain language puts the needs of a reader at the centre of the writing and editing process. In fact, advocates of plain language frame it as a social justice issue.

Everyone has the right to access the information they need to make decisions.

Increasingly, plain language is used when writing and editing government, business, financial, health, and legal documents.

So what does that mean for me as an editor and you as a writer?

The Elements of Plain Language

Let's say you're writing a document, and you want me to revise it with plain language. How would I do that?

Purpose, Audience and Format

First, I need to know your purpose in writing the document. I also need to know how it will be published, for example, digitally or in print. Will it be an article in a magazine, a public report, or a community newsletter?

Importantly, I need to know about your audience. Their needs are front and centre when I revise a text.

I edit with three goals in mind. For a public document, your audience should be able to

  • find the information they need

  • understand that information

  • use that information for their purposes

So far so good. But how do I actually revise for plain language?

If you guessed I use simple, everyday language, you're right. But I do more than that. I organize your ideas then map a visual design onto your content. That way, your reader can easily find the information they need.

Those are the elements of plain language I use to revise a public document — organized content, visual design, and simple language. First, I start with organizing your ideas.

Organized Content

I start by reviewing the main ideas of your document. I can help organize and present your topics in a way that makes sense to your reader, and one of those ways is to place important information first.

It also helps if your paragraphs are short.

I'll often break up long paragraphs into smaller chunks of text. That way, the information is easier to digest.

Once I've organized your ideas, I map a visual design onto your content.

Visual Design

Dense text is hard to read. I can use visual elements so that your information jumps out, making it easy to find.

One way is to use headings and subheadings and vary their look: I can use different typefaces and sizes and vary how thick or dark the text is. All these variations help to organize and highlight important information.

I can also create contrast and interest by adding images, diagrams, and quotes.

By surrounding a text with plenty of white space, I allow your reader's eye to rest and information to stand out.

Lastly, I use bullet points. Sure, there can always be too much of a good thing. Yet when used well, bullet points will draw your reader's eye.

When the visual design is done, I focus on language.

Simple Language

I use simple, everyday language and keep sentences short, with only one or two ideas per sentence. If you use technical terms, then it helps if you include a brief explanation.

Clear grammatical structure is crucial. For example, a reader shouldn't have to struggle to understand "who is doing what."

I want the subject and verb in a sentence to stand out.

Here's a tip: using the active voice in your writing is one way to help your reader understand your message.

Active Voice

I rewrite a text in the active voice as much as possible. To understand this idea, it helps to compare the passive voice with the active voice

Here's an example.

Passive voice:

Ontario's public health guidelines must be followed.

  • The verb is in bold.

  • In this case, the verb doesn't have a subject. It's not clear who must follow the guidelines.

Active voice:

All businesses must follow Ontario's public health guidelines.

  • The subject and verb are in bold.

  • When a sentence subject is clearly connected to a verb, we don't have to guess. We now know who must follow the guidelines

As you can see, using the active voice is a simple strategy. It makes your text clearer, and your readers will thank you for it.

So remember these three elements when revising your text: organized content, visual design, and simple language. Using plain language will help you create a readable document for the general public.

Looking for a Plain Language Revision?

If you'd like your document revised using plain language, please tell me about your project. You can fill out the form on my Contact page.

TED talk: To learn more about plain language, here is Alan Seigel's short and inspiring four-minute talk Let's simplify legal jargon!


bottom of page