#1 What is plain language?

In this lesson, we explain what plain language is and why it’s a good idea — for writers, readers, and organisations. We start to uncover in more detail why plain language works for readers. And we bust the ‘dumbing down myth.

Plain language is a style of writing that focuses on the reader rather than the writer. Documents written in plain language (reports, emails, updates, research papers, and so on) are easier for readers to read, understand, and act on. 

The United States Center for Plain Language provides a formal definition of plain language:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

A standard for plain language excellence

Plain language documents excel at achieving the principles set out in our Write Plain Language Standard, which you can download at the bottom of the page. We’ll be exploring these principles throughout this course.

‘Big picture’ elements  

1. The purpose of the document is clear at the start

2. The content supports the purpose of the document

3. The structure of the document is clear and logical to the reader

4. The headings signal the key content

Language elements

5. The paragraphs are mostly short and focused on one topic

6. The sentences are mostly short and straightforward

7. The words are precise and familiar

8. The tone supports the purpose of the document

Presentation elements

9. The layout and presentation help the reader absorb the message quickly and easily

10. The document is error-free and consistent with your style guide

Why plain language is good for writers and for business

As a writer, you’re more likely to get the results you want from your content. As a reader, you’re more likely to know what the writer wants you to do as a result of reading plain language content. 

From a business perspective, plain language leads to more efficient processes, more collegial working relationships, and better customer service. 

You can read more about the business benefits in our book Rewrite: How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit.

For more on plain language on the global stage and the ‘right to understand’, watch this TED talk by Portuguese plain language advocate Sandra Fisher-Martins.

Busting the myth of ‘dumbing down’

Some people have the misconception that plain language refers to just the words used in a document. But plain language is more than removing jargon and using simple words, and it isn’t language that is dumbed down. It’s a way of writing that’s reader-focused with appropriate style and tone. Think of a yourself as having a conversation with the reader.

Far from dumbing down, plain language is ‘smartening up’! To write in plain language takes care and craft. When you start out, it can sometimes feel too difficult. 

However, once you’ve got the principles in mind and you practise applying them, you’ll find plain language comes naturally. And you’ll get better results from your writing.

Activity: Spot the difference

Here are two examples of the same piece of writing. The second has been rewritten following plain language principles. What differences do you notice?

Example 1 (Before)

Example 2 (After)