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The Basics of Plain Language

By William H. DuBay

PLAIN language is all about reading ease. It is language that your audience can easily read and understand. Creating documents that are easy-to-read involves these two steps:

  1. Find out the reading level of your audience.
  2. Create documents that match that level.

The rest of this newsletter is a lesson on how to create easy-to-read texts.

The Theory of Plain Language

Plain language is based on the sound theory that we first learn to read the simplest words and sentences. As we progress, we learn to master more difficult words and texts. Our reading habits throughout life continue to affect our reading skill. As a result, adults have different levels of skill. Using plain language means writing texts for an audience of a particular level of reading skill.

1. Find Out the Reading Level of Your Audience

If your audience is small, you can find out their reading level by asking them what they like to read, by asking them the last grade of education they completed, or by conducting a reading test.

If the audience is large, there are some assumptions you can make, based on surveys. If they are all college graduates, they will prefer general materials written at the 10th-grade level. If you are writing for their specialty, however, the grade level can be much higher. The average high-school graduate reads at the 8th-grade level. The average adult in the U.S. reads at the 7th-grade level. If you are writing materials for consumers about medicine, health, or safety, they should be at the 5th-grade level.

There are other features of the readers you should know. Their prior knowledge of a subject and their interest and motivation also affect their success in reading. Those who are very interested in a subject, know a lot about it, or are highly motivated can often read and master very difficult texts. For use in a classroom or training situation, you can also make the text somewhat more difficult than their actual grade level, but not more than two grades higher. Such a text stimulates a "set to learn," causing the reader to remember more.

On the contrary, if the prior knowledge, interest, and motivation of the readers are low, or if they are confused, stressed, or elderly, you must increase your efforts to make the text interesting and easy-to-read. That is, make it somewhat less difficult than their actual reading grade level, but not more than two grades lower.

So, there are three factors in the reader that affect the ease of reading:

  1. Reading ability. What is the grade-level of reading skill?
  2. Prior knowledge. How much do the readers know already about this subject?
  3. Interest and motivation. Is your audience highly interested and motivated or not?

2. Create Documents to Match the Reading Level of Your Audience

Once you have an estimate of the average reading level of your audience, you can now adjust the text to that reading level. There are four factors in the text to consider:

  1. Content. Are the ideas of the text clear and interesting to your readers? Do they build on the readers' knowledge and experience? Do they achieve the purpose of the text?
  2. Writing style. Do the vocabulary and sentence structure match the reading skill of the audience? Do you have the right approach?
  3. Organization and coherence. The lower the grade level, the more attention you must give to organization and coherence. Is it easy to see how the ideas relate to one another? Does the text use headings and paragraphs to make these relationships clear?
  4. Design. Are the typography, layout, and graphics appropriate for the ideas expressed and the expectations of the audience?

Using a readability formula (such as the Gunning Fog formula) can give you a rough estimate of the difficulty of the writing style. A readability formula is a good place to start, but it only looks at one aspect of style—the length of words and sentences. If you shorten the words and sentences without also adjusting the content, organization, approach, and design, you will not improve the readability of the text. You will probably make it worse.


Fig. 1. The features of readable text are listed in the order of their importance. Content is most important, followed by style, structure, and design.

Here are some methods for bringing your text into line with the needs of your audience:

  1. Find out what your audience likes to read. Try to capture the design and approach of those materials as well as the level of difficulty.
  2. Study other books and periodicals written for the grade level you require. For example, if your target grade level is the seventh grade, find materials suitable for middle-school students. If your target is the fifth grade, ask a librarian or bookseller to direct you to materials appropriate for that grade. Remember, if a document works for students of a certain reading-grade level, it will work for adults of that same reading-grade level. They might not have the same reading interests, but they share the same reading skills and the same reading difficulties. See The News for You, a weekly newspaper published by New Readers Press suitable for middle-school readers.
  3. Confer with members of your audience before, during, and after the production of your document. Their input is indispensable.
  4. Confer with as many editors and writers as possible during the production of your document. The more input you have, the more your final product will match the needs of your audience.

Before-and-After Samples

In Using Readability: Formulas for Easy Adult Materials, Robert Laubach and Kay Koschnick (1977) give us these two before-and-after samples. They are both about the same subject, vitamins.

Sample 1
Neither growth nor health can be sustained unless the daily foods provide certain essentials, which are called vitamins. Research has shown that the vitamins have great importance in many of the vital activities of the body. Health, growth, development, and fortification of the body against disease, all of which are directly affected by the vitamin content of the foods eaten, can be influenced by a careful selection of foods.
Sample 2
You need vitamins. Everyone does—young and old. You need vitamins to build a healthy body and to keep it fit and strong. When you eat fresh vegetables from your garden, you get vitamins in their natural form. Seeds are rich in certain vitamins. Green growing plants produce and hold vitamins. Ripe fruits, vegetables, and grains give you vitamins along with other nourishment.

The readability grade level of the first sample is 13.8, of the second sample, 6.2. The authors point out the different features of these two samples in the following:

Vocabulary
The first sample has many hard words, generally long words of three or more syllables. Some words, like essentials and selection, are abstract: you cannot see, touch, hear, or smell them. The second sample has only a few hard words. Vitamin is a hard word, but it is used many times, gaining familiarity. There are almost no abstract words. Instead of the abstract careful selection of foods, we have concrete examples: fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Sentences
In the first sample, the sentences are long, with an average 23 words per sentence. Long sentences tend to be complex, often containing clauses that are hard to follow. The second sample has an average of nine words per sentence. Short sentences tend to be simple rather than complex. Because they have only one or two main ideas, they tend to be easier to understand. The average length and the structure of sentences are key factors of plain language.
Ideas
The ideas in the first sample contain several complex thoughts. They are lost in the underbrush of hard words and long sentences. In the second sample, the ideas stand out clearly. Notice that the second sample has all the same information as the first, and more. Its information is simply easier to absorb.
Approach
The approach of the first sample is negative (Neither...nor). It often uses the passive voice (can be sustained, has shown, are... affected, can be influenced). The sample is also impersonal. You don't feel the author is speaking to you. A text that is hard, impersonal, and passive often causes readers to lose interest and to stop reading. The second sample has a positive approach. There are no negatives. The author uses the active voice throughout (You need; you eat, you get; plants produce and hold; fruits, vegetables, and grains give). Most important, the author speaks to you, the reader. The approach is personal (You need vitamins). In fact, the words you and your appear six times.

To create texts that are easy to understand, keep in mind these important guidelines:

  1. Use easy, concrete words. You can use hard words when necessary, but define them—and keep the average length of words short.
  2. Use short sentences. Not every sentence has to be short, but keep the average short. A mix of long and short sentences creates a rhythm that readers expect, even in simple prose.
  3. Use the active voice as much as you can. Sometimes, you cannot avoid using the passive voice, but it generally is more difficult to understand.
  4. Use a positive, personal style. Speak directly to the readers as if they were sitting in front of you.

There you have it, the basics of plain language: 1. Find out the reading level of the audience, and 2. Create texts for them at that level.


Plain Language in the News

Plain English in the Workplace
http://edition.cnn.com/2004/BUSINESS/05/03/go.plain.english/

Literacy Skills and Good Health
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/press/releases/press05052004.html

Technical Writing and Readability
http://www.webpronews.com/ebusiness/contentandcopywriting/wpn-6-20040527TechwritersANecessaryEvil.html

How to Edit Copy and Influence People
http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=65579

Plain English Saves Money
http://www.thesundaymail.news.com.au/common/story_page/ 0,5936,9691406%255E903,00.html

Health Illiteracy a Serious Threat
http://www.pww.org/article/articleview/5209/1/214