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Updated Oct 2016
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Plain language is text that relies on words and images that are easily understood, and that is organized and formatted in ways that are inviting and intuitive for the reader. Plain language helps readers of all proficiency levels. For the average American, plain language brings the information within reach, making the reader more independent and better informed. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found in 2003 that 43% of the U.S. population is at or below basic literacy levels. 
Plain language benefits more proficient readers, too. The documents are more appealing, which means they are more likely to be read and easier to use.
Click to see plain language Before and After samples.
Why Plain Language
Plain language is a crucial tool in industries that depend on efficient, clear communication. Organizations that use plain language include the private sector, nonprofits, and government agencies in a wide range of disciplines. All benefit when their users are better able to access the information provided.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010  requires all federal agencies to put any new and revised publications into plain language starting in late 2011.
In the legal field, plain language can be the first step to access to justice. From effectively filling out legal forms to helping pro per clients do their best, plain language forms and pamphlets allow people access to the information they need in a way they can understand and use.
See Plain Language Works for Pro Per Litigants and Is Plain Language Better? A Comparative Readability Study of Plain Language Court Forms for more information. You can also read a transcript of our recent interview with Professor Richard Wydick, plain language pioneer and author of the best-selling Plain English for Lawyers. You'll learn about his path to plain legal language and why plain language is important in law.
Health care is a another prime example – how we write can directly impact a patients’ health. If our readers are unable to understand a medical pamphlet, health survey, or prescription directions, we alienate the readers we had hoped to empower. To learn more, see Plain Language = Better Health Care.
Here is an example of how plain language improved the Medi-Cal and Healthy Families Application:
How to Write in Plain Language
In the initial part of the plain language process, Transcend’s team of plain language editors creates a plain language draft of your document using these established principles of readability:
- Match the reading grade level to the average consumer’s reading proficiency,
- Use familiar words and phrasings (if specialized terms must be used, they are explained),
- John E. McIntyre discusses the use of the singular "they" in this video.
- Avoid foreign, archaic and noun-heavy phrasings,
- Use active voice and direct address, and
- Present information intuitively.
We change the words, organization, layout and graphics to make documents and websites easier to read and navigate. (For a list of the main components of readability, see our Readability Instrument and Readability and Cultural Competency Checklist.)
During the draft process, the editors track key words and phrases and organize them in a glossary format. The glossary tracks the language preferences of your consumers and staff, and helps you and your organization select the best words and phrases for your current and future documents. Here are sample entries from a plain language glossary on eviction:
|Restrained/enjoined from||Must not|
|Writ of possession||Eviction order|
|Emergency motion to stay writ of possession||Request to delay eviction|
|Petition for possession of residential
|Request to return to rental unit|
|Exempt property||Protected income/assets|
|Motion to quash garnishment/execution||Request to protect income/assets|
|Uniform Civil Affidavit of Indigency||Request to postpone filing fees and order|
A conversion to plain language is a cost-effective move. Plain language documents are typically 40% shorter than the original, and printing, paper, and translations costs are lowered because there are fewer words and fewer pages.
Plain language documents also reduce the burden on your support staff because you have:
- Fewer support requests from your customers,
- Less support time with your customers, and
- Fewer user errors.
Ultimately, plain language:
- Increases access, as a greater number of readers can read your documents, and
- Increases usability and efficiency, as a greater number of readers are able to understand and complete your forms and comply with instructions.
For a more in-depth look at the benefits of plain language, see Is Plain Language Better? A Comparative Readability Study of Plain Language Court Forms
Transcend uses a variety of tools to determine readability and usability. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level algorithm assigns a grade level to the document, allowing us to measure how close we can get to the average American’s level of reading proficiency. We also look at other data, such as Flesch Reading Ease, the percentage of passive sentences, average sentence length, and other criteria listed on our Readability Instrument. These tools are the first phase of the evaluation process; the next is user feedback.
To test the effectiveness of a plain language document or website, we ask potential users. Field tests allow us to:
- See if the user understands the main messages,
- Determine if the user can accomplish typical tasks,
- Identify the words/parts that are difficult, and
- Ask the user how to make the document or website even better.
To collect this vital data, Transcend creates an instrument that elicits user feedback and tests usability. The questions on the instrument vary according to the nature of the text. It may include questions that ask the users to say what they most like/dislike about a document, perform a specific task on a website, or respond to a questionnaire.
The results of our testing, whether focus group, usability tasks, or questionnaires, gives us the data you need to better understand and catalog user preferences. We prepare a Testing Report that summarizes the results and makes specific recommendations for improvement.
For more information, read our article on Focus Groups: Connecting Writers of Legal Documents with their Audience.
Transcend's Maria Mindlin is an expert on issues related to language and readability. Our expert witness services have proved key in state and federal cases, including matters related to contracts, admonitions, disclosures, and claim forms.
Click to see Maria's CV.
To learn more about our expert witness services, please contact us.
Improve your plain language skills online. Start with either option:
- Transcend’s CALI Author® Lessons
- Transcend’s Training Video
CALI Author® Lessons
Transcend and LawNY, Inc. used CALI Author® to create three 25-minute plain language lessons. Here is what you will learn:
- Lesson 1: Evaluate for Readability
Evaluate the readability of print materials, and apply readability guidelines to your own document.
- Lesson 2: Reading Theory
Learn about reading theory and how you can use it to improve your work.
- Lesson 3: Case Study
Apply what you learned in Lessons 1 and 2 to create a document.
Transcend Training Video
Watch Transcend’s fun and informative training video on the visual aspects of plain language. These six 3-minute tips help you write documents that your clients will want to read.
Transcend offers the following webinars. Each webinar is 1 hour and can be scheduled to meet your needs.
“I thought the class was very informative, and made me look at my writing in a different way.”
“The class materials were awesome. Thanks!”
“I thought it was an excellent class! I hope to get a chance to participate in another one.”
Why Plain Language? An overview of plain language, including economic advantages, relative effectiveness, and compliance with regulations.
Register: Working words & glue; legalese and brevity; measuring and understanding reading grade level
Looks Matter: Visual accessibility, including: page real estate, fonts and text enhancement, chunking and white space, reading interest & persistence, Case Study Review
Usability: Characteristics of usable websites; why field test; types of field testing; how to field test
Reading Critically: How to critically analyze your/someone else’s writing; tools for analysis – checklists, WORD functions, using color; LawNY’s Write Clearly gadget, developed by Brad Reiss.
Writing Situations: How to draft a readable info sheet, form, and letter
Cultural Competency: The most effective documents are written for their audience. Our writing is best when we know about the people we write for, including: educational level, English proficiency, ethnicities, age, gender, disabilities, and other characteristics
Plain Language for Health Care – Online and In-person Training: Rebecca Gholson, MSEd, renowned health literacy instructor and the Executive Director for the Center for Plain Language, will teach you how to:
- Evaluate and improve your written documents and web content,
- Speak to patients in plain language,
- Improve communication for special populations, including children, elders, and minority populations, and
- Test content for understandability.
Or ask Rebecca to tailor a class to your organization's needs.
For more information about our webinars and live training, please contact the senior instructor, Susan Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 The Plain Writing Act of 2010, H.R. 946, requires all federal agencies to put into plain language any new or revised “letters, publications, forms, notices, or instructions” within one year of enactment of the bill. The bill requires each agency to develop and execute a plain writing act implementation plan, and post annual reports on their website chronicling their progress. The director of the Office of Management and Budget designated the Plain Language Action & Information Network (PLAIN) as the official interagency working group that will offer plain language guidance to federal agencies.