Contented Plain Language Objective Test: research-based and free

How can you test whether a document is in plain language? Writing guidelines proliferate like mayflies. They vary from five dot points to 112 pages or more.

Plain language devotees generally agree on principles and practices that make a document easy for the intended reader to read, understand and use. Guidelines express those principles and practices in different ways, that's all.

You know there's a damn good reason for writing business documents that your readers can understand! But how to you show unconvinced clients or colleagues that their beloved document still needs work?

We've drawn up a 10-point objective test for plain language based on guidelines that are supported by research. You can share this list freely with anyone, and use it to test compliance. (Just acknowledge that created this test.)

Contented Plain Language Objective Test (PLOT)

  1. The main message and purpose of the document are obvious at the beginning. (Test this with five outsiders.)
  2. The structure of the document is obvious, for example through an informative title, headlines and table of contents. (Test this with five outsiders.)
  3. Necessity rules. The document contains no unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs or facts—and all necessary ones.
  4. All paragraphs have one topic, which is obvious from the first sentence. Most paragraphs are shorter than 100 words.
  5. Most sentences are short (21 words maximum) and simple (subjects near verbs). Count a capitalised title as a single word.
  6. Most words are familiar to the intended reader and most nouns are concrete.
  7. Most verbs are active, short, and uncomplicated.
  8. An accessible, easy-to-read template is used correctly. Headings and sub-headings are styled Heading 1 and Heading 2.
  9. The document follows a style guide and uses correct spelling, punctuation and grammar.
  10. The Flesch Reading Ease test gives the document a score of at least 60. This score shows that 60% of adults can easily read and understand the document.

Download the Contented Plain Language Objective Test (PLOT) PDF, 62KB
Plain Legal Language: The Underlying Research. Karen Shriver, Ph.D., clarity1012 PDF online

Use the Contented PLOT as a quick and easy Yes/No test: is a document in plain language or not? Our more detailed Plain English Quality Assurance tool (now under development) gives exact criteria for scoring any document or web content out of 100, so you can compare documents and track progress.

And when your evangelism succeeds and your colleagues and clients want to improve their own writing, just point them to the Contented courses. Sweet!

Contented Business Writing Bundle: 5 short online courses in plain language business writing
Image: Dr Atkinson in his laboratory, Antarctica, 1911


Dec 28, 2012 • Posted by Manuela Mattei

Thank you, Rachel! I’ve tried to translate into Italian some of your suggestions here:

Dec 28, 2012 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Thanks for the link and acknowledgement, Manuela—and a happy New Year to you!

Nov 30, 2012 • Posted by Kate Harrison Whiteside

Great piece. Love plain solutions to plain language. I tried to print from your link – but from my MAC all I got was a black page. This means I can’t print it with your logo. If you have a solution, please let me know.

Kate Harrison Whiteside
Come to PLAIN2013 Conference, Vancouver Oct 10-13

Nov 30, 2012 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Thanks Kate! Switch to Chrome browser and the PDF appears. I know that black screen well: only Mac owners have the honour.

Dec 01, 2012 • Posted by Nick Wright

Our StyleWriter – plain English editing software, will measure and rate your document for six measures of plain English. It will show you where and how to edit your document into plain English. It highlights long sentences, wordy sentences, unreadable sentences, passive verbs, unfamiliar words (with plain English alternatives, jargon and a host of other problems in writing.

Don’t take my word for it, download a 14-day trial and test your own writing for clarity and plain English.

Rachel – your original post scored as plain English.

Nick Wright
Designer of StyleWriter

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