Northwest Territories Literacy Council

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Plain Language

Graphic: a bird with glassesWhat is Plain Language?

  • Plain language is a process. It starts with your readers and the purpose of your document.
  • Plain language is based on research about what helps people read, understand, and use written information.
  • Plain language is clear, concise, and well-organized.
The plain language process:
Step 1

Know your readers and purpose.
• Who are your readers?
• What do they need to know?
• What do you want them to do?
Step 2

Make an outline.
• Is the most important information first?
• Are sections in logical order? Do headings describe them?
• Do readers know right away what the document's about?
• Can readers find information they need?
Step 3

Write or edit.
• Are the words simple, short, and clear?
• Is there just one idea per sentence? Are sentences short?
• Is the tone positive? Active writing style?
• Are the paragraphs short? With bullets or lists where appropriate?
• Are the extras left out?
Step 4

Design your document.
• Does white space break up the text?
• Is important information highlighted?
• Can people read the style and size of font?
• Do charts, photos or other graphics help?
• Is colour effective?
Step 5

Test and revise.
• Did you get feedback from a sample of your readers?
• Did you read the document out loud?
• Did you do a readability test?
• Did you ask a co-worker or plain language specialist to read your document?
• Did you revise your document based on different tests?

Why use plain language?

People depend on written information to participate fully in society. People may not be able to use written information because:

  • Many documents are poorly designed and the writing is too complex, wordy, and technical. Even people with good literacy skills skip information, don't understand what's written, or just won't bother to read a document.
  • Many people have low literacy skills. In the NWT, 54% of Aboriginal adults and 13% of non-Aboriginal adults don't have grade 12. 27% of Aboriginal adults don't have grade 9.
  • Many people speak and write English as a second language.

Myths and Facts

Myth: Plain language is simple-minded and talks down to people.

Fact: Plain language includes and respects people. People understand what they read. They get the information they need and not a lot of extras.

Myth: Plain language takes too long and costs too much.

Fact: Plain language saves time and money. When people understand what they read, they ask fewer questions, complain less, and make fewer mistakes. Their health and safety are more assured.

Myth: Plain language isn't necessary for people who read well.

Fact: Plain language helps everyone understand what they read. People with good literacy skills skip over information, understand less, or just won't read a document that is too complex, wordy, or technical.

Myth: Plain language isn't good for legal and technical terms.

Fact: Plain language can be used with any document. You can define legal or technical terms so that people can understand and use the information.

-------------------------------------- Plain language benefits everyone --------------------------------------------