Plain Writing in More Detail

Bigger, Better, Plainer: Plain Writing in More Detail
Posted on 05/03/2016
CivicLive - Plain Writing in More Detail

In an earlier post we discussed Plain Language in Government Communications but we focused heavily on the “What” and skimmed through the “How” and “Why.” This time around, let’s dig a little deeper and start preparing you for your new life as a plain language writer.

The Problems

English poses some unique challenges to writers. Hundreds of other languages have left their mark, so the average English speaker’s vocabulary consists of countless “borrowed” words and phrases. This borrowing varies greatly by region, so someone learning English (or even just visiting from a neighboring state) can have a very difficult time understanding you even though you’re both technically speaking the same language.

Since government communications need to reach as many people as possible, your word selection needs to be accessible. Government agencies are always vulnerable to controversy – failure to communicate clearly leaves you helpless to control your message, and there is nothing stopping your opponents from deliberately misinterpreting your words. So plain language not only increases accessibility and engagement, it also puts you in charge of your message.

Which Words Should I Use?

As writers, we use our vocabularies to add color to our writing, but we often avoid the “core English language” because we think it’s boring. Plain language advocates would remind us that, while we may take simple words for granted, they remain necessary in public communication. Remember back in school when you would use the thesaurus to find more impressive words? It’s okay to reverse that now. For instance, rather than asking for “assistance,” ask for “help.” Rather than warning residents about a “wicked nor’easter,” call it a “storm.” Use the simplest words, and try to stick to dictionary words so that people can look it up if they’re uncertain. New residents may not have access to the internet just yet, and they might feel silly knocking on their neighbor’s door to ask what a “nor’easter” actually is.

Visit for helpful word suggestions. Remember to be consistent with your word choices, as well – make sure to call it a “storm” throughout the entire piece.

Speak positively whenever possible, and never use a double negative. For example: instead of saying, “City employees will not be entitled to take time off without the manager’s express permission,” say, “Your manager must approve all time off.”

Try not to use too many adjectives in a row, particularly if those adjectives also happen to be nouns. For example, rather than saying, “The City is working on roadway development construction improvements, say, “The City is working on construction improvements relating to roadway development.

Finally, since you want to make your writing less academic and more conversational, it’s okay to use contractions such as “don’t” and “it’s,” so long as you don’t overuse them.

How Should I Use Them?

Firstly, try to avoid using passive voice whenever possible. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, “Suzie kicked the ball” is active voice while “The ball was kicked by Suzie” is passive voice. Notice how, with the passive voice, you knew what happened before you knew who was responsible? This forces you to reassemble the situation once you have all of the information. The active voice makes your writing easier to understand because it provides the reader with an easy-to-follow flow of information. The Plain Language Guidelines state that passive voice “is one of the biggest problems with government documents” because it creates ambiguity about who is responsible. Don’t say, “Before work is begun, a building permit must be acquired,”. Instead, say, “You must acquire a building permit before beginning work.” Be specific about who needs to act and when.

Active voice also helps shorten sentences, which keeps your information structured and compartmentalized.

Closing Thoughts

Accessibility best practices ensure that the web remains open to everyone, so it is especially important for democratic institutions to uphold these standards. While it seems like plain speech caters primarily to those learning English, it actually benefits everyone – even the writer. Rather than agonizing over how to satisfy every potential audience type, you can write universally-accessible information by following these three simple rules:

  • Write shorter sentences with simpler words.
  • Avoid slang and jargon..
  • Use the active voice whenever possible.

There will always be room for complex poetry and dense prose, but government communications serve a much different purpose, and should always be extremely easy to follow.

For more information on Plain Language, please visit

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