We’ve all been here: you’re browsing a government website in search of important information. Maybe you need to fill out a form or figure out the right forms of ID to bring to an office. You read through the instructions once, and you have no idea what they’re trying to say. A second read-through doesn’t bring much clarity.
Those websites probably aren’t written in plain language—but they should be. Plain language writing turns complex website copy into clear content everyone can grasp. It helps users find what they need and understand it the first time they read or hear it.
Beyond being a solid best practice, it’s also the law for government websites. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to use plain language in all public-facing content. A decade later, plain language continues to be an important part of building websites. You should use it every time you create new content!
Keep reading to learn more about who benefits from plain language and how you can write content that serves everyone.
When should you use plain language writing?
The short answer is whenever possible! Plain language has benefits for different audiences, from colleagues to customers.
In the past, written copy has often gone overlooked as part of the user experience. That mentality is misguided at best. If your audience can’t understand the words on your website, you are not giving them a good experience. This is especially true with content related to health, safety, finances, and laws. In these cases, misunderstandings can have dire consequences.
Thanks to plain language champions everywhere, this is changing.
At U.Group, we build plain language writing into our customer recommendations from day one. Using plain language in public-facing content:
- helps readers better understand your content
- results in fewer questions
- reduces the number of errors made when filling out forms
- builds trust with the public
- saves time and frustration
Communication with customers
If you want your customers to understand what you’re doing for them, you need to skip the jargon. Chances are, they won’t start out knowing the best way to get their message across to their audience. Although you can teach them as you go along, you might lose them if you start off full blast with technical terms.
By using plain language from day one, you’ll ensure they understand the work you’re doing for them. This in turn enables more productive conversations about how to meet their needs. The end result? Enthusiastic buy-in and trust that you’ll get the job done right.
Internal communication with colleagues
You might think Slack threads or emails should be a plain language free zone, right? Not necessarily. There are several good reasons to use plain language with your team, too:
- Inclusion: If you’re a senior team member talking to a junior colleague, using uncommon technical terms can alienate them.
- Cohesion: If you’re in a group of folks from multiple disciplines, plain language keeps everyone in the loop.
- Efficiency: We can all work faster when we don’t need to pause to ask for a translation every few minutes.
Common misperceptions about plain language
If these plain language benefits still have you doubting its value, you’re not alone. There are many common misperceptions that lead customers—and teammates— to push back. Here are some of the ones we encounter most often at U.Group.
Plain language dumbs down content.
Plain language opens content up to everyone, making it accessible. There are millions of folks with intellectual disabilities, dyslexia, and visual impairments. There are millions more who speak English as a second language. You want to provide a good experience for everyone, regardless of who they are.
Our audience is highly-educated, so we can get away with more complex language.
The average person on the internet reads at a 6th to 8th grade level. Unless you password-protect your website, you can’t control or know everyone who accesses it. So even if the main target audience is college graduates, there will always be users who read at a lower level. You’re writing for everyone, not just college grads.
You may be surprised to hear that plain language benefits your most educated readers too. Even if they can keep up with more technical writing, they may not want to! Plain language is easier on everyone’s attention spans and energy levels. When they’re tired or in a hurry, they’ll appreciate you keeping it simple for them. In turn, you’ll be able to keep your readers engaged for longer.
Our subject matter is too complex to simplify. We’d lose too much context and meaning.
That’s often not the case. If you’re not sure how to simplify your content, it’s time to talk to a content strategist. Professional writers make a living distilling complex information into digestible content. Take this blog article, for example. The Hemingway Editor—an invaluable tool for plain language—rated it at a 6th grade reading level. Even if you’re not a writer, using a tool like the Hemingway Editor makes plain writing simple.
Plain language writing is only concerned with word choice.
Plain language includes using common words, but it’s so much more than that. It’s also about how you organize content. Readers should be able to scan for the information that’s most important to them. These are some of the most important plain language elements:
- Active voice
- Short sentences and paragraphs
- Front-loaded content that places the key takeaway up top and then goes into details
Are you a believer yet?
If you’ve started to see the value in plain language writing, welcome to the club! We need as many enthusiasts as we can get. Here are some of our favorite plain language resources to help you get started using it in your work:
If your website needs a plain language overhaul, we’d love to help. Connect with us to get started.