Plain Language: a paradox for technical communicators

Giving presentations to small groups is a tradeoff. The audience get a talk from a relevant speaker, we all get to meet new people, and the speaker gets—in this case, a bottle of Te Atarangi Pinot Noir! I like that. But I also enjoy the excuse to think through a new aspect of contemporary communication.

This time, I strode through seven decades of the plain language movement, matching developments in the wide world with developments in my own language.

Naming a moment when the plain language movement was born is arbitrary. Aristotle's Ars Rhetorica? Wycliffe's Bible in the vernacular? George Orwell? I arbitrarily chose the US Admiral who noted problems of unreadable gun manuals in World War II, since that was in the 1940s, when I also was born.

In the 1940s I learned to speak, listen, read and write in English, and I was exposed to the King James Bible and the more literary of children's books.

By 2012, work as a technical communicator has split into an overwhelming number of channels, platforms, languages, techniques, devices—and stuff. My own work, and that of technical communicators, requires at least a minimal knowledge of everything from SEO to CSS, from WORD to WCAG 2.0, from apps to AJAX, from usability to Kindle, from posters to iPads, from Twitter to Global English—and that's just the start. Content goes way beyond words into audio, video, e-teaching, e-books and all sorts of transactions.

That's what I mean by pixillation. A career in communication, journalism, writing, editing or publishing used to be comparatively simple. What you learned on the job might have covered your professional skills for the rest of your working life. The plain language guidelines applied literally to pretty much everything you were required to do.

In the 1980s the thunderbolt struck: computers. Computers split writing into something digital and electronic, bringing infinite possibilities as well as seemingly infinite new obligations.

Now here's the paradox. Plain language principles at first sight seem simplistic, antediluvian, because they are analogue and paper based. Plain language is not sexy.

And yet the definition and guidelines for plain language are as valid today as they ever were. What's more, with a little thought, like a sturdy umbrella they cover all the miriad jobs we have to do for digital-electronic communication.

Wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find, understand and use the information they need at their first attempt.
Basic guidelines for plain language:

  1. Put the reader’s needs first.
  2. Design for the reader.
  3. Organise information for the reader.
  4. Use short sentences (about 21 words maximum)
  5. Use words familiar to your intended reader.


Don't panic when yet another new device or regulation is tossed at you. Take a deep breath and refer back to good old plain language. The world has changed massively, but the principles of good communication have not.

Regardless of task and technology, start from the beginning. You want the intended reader to find and understand and use the information they need, easily, at their first attempt.

You will still put the reader's needs first—but ask yourself whether they are reading from a Kindle, a smartphone, web page, Power Point slide or piece of paper? Are they reading with their eyes, ears, or fingers?

Plain language is technology-neutral. From those old-fashioned, non-sexy principles, good things such as usability, accessibility and findability follow naturally.




Aug 04, 2012 • Posted by Paul Danon

How are those guidelines arrived-at? Do they come from research? Also, 1, 2 and 3 saying the same thing.

Aug 04, 2012 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Hi Paul. Plain language guidelines are flexible and variable, and to discuss them thoroughly would require a scholarly book. The Contented way is to offer practical tips that will instantly help people, so I chose a few common guidelines for plain language that are widely agreed on.

See the US Federal Plain Language Guidelines for an authoritative and complete version.

Research backs many plain language guidelines. See Grounding Plain Language in Research by Dr Karen Schriver and Frances Gordon:
Clarity, Journal of the international association promoting plain legal language, No. 64 November 2010 — PDF

When you say “1, 2 and 3” [are] saying the same thing", you are correct: carried to its logical conclusion, the first guideline (Put the reader’s needs first) includes not only the next two, but every possible guideline for plain language. If you are genuinely putting the reader’s needs first, guideline No. 1 should determine how you write, structure, design, code and deliver the message. It should determine what you write, if anything. It should guide you in your choice of words and determine the structure and maximum length of your sentences. This is the overarching rule of accessibility and usability and all good design. You obviously understand this, but most people need a little more help.

Leave a comment: