Complex needs plain languageThe Guardian’s Alex Hern forced himself to read all the terms and conditions he encountered in one week. In that time, he collected 146,000 words of legalese in 33 documents. It was, he said, “enough to fill three quarters of Moby Dick, just to explain what I can and can’t do online.”

Few of us have the dedication to follow Hern’s path. Most of us skim these documents (if we look at them at all) before accepting and carrying on. No wonder. They are generally so wordy and confusing, our eyes glaze over within seconds.

We might actually read and understand what we’re agreeing to if only the writers used plain language.

“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information,” explains Plain Language Association InterNational. The association promotes clear communication in any language, in Canada and around the world.

To mark International Plain Language Day, celebrated in October, an issue of my newsletter shared three steps to make your writing more readable with plain language:

1. Choose your words

  • Use short, everyday words of one or two syllables. Choose “use” instead of “utilize,” “about” over “approximately.”
  • Leave out unnecessary words. For example, replace “Owing to the fact that” with “Since.”
  • Avoid jargon. No writing is improved with words and phrases like best of breed, leverage, solutions and incentivize.
  • Use the active voice. Not “It was decided…” but “[Name] decided…”
  • Use transitional words and phrases to link information: besides, also, another, likewise, but, for example.

2. Look at structure

  • Write short sentences. An average of 14 words per sentence results in up to 90% understanding, says the American Press Institute.
  • Write short paragraphs, breaking them when introducing a new idea. Otherwise, you’ll lose readers in a large, exhausting block of text.
  • Use helpful headings and subheadings, bulleted lists, graphics and white space to make reading easier.
  • Choose a font and type size that will be easy to read.

3. Write for your reader

  • Consider whether you’re writing for average readers or experts. What information do they already know? What do they need to know?
  • Remember that plain language is for everyone, even experts. “No one has ever complained that a text was too easy to understand,” says Nielsen Norman Group.
  • Fight back if lawyers and other reviewers try to use multi-syllable words and lengthy sentences.
  • If you need backup to make your case, run the wordy text through readability stats and show the results.

These tips would be perfect for terms and conditions, or really any complex writing that you hope will be read and understood.

Have you run across any writing that needs some plain language? Let me know in the comments. I’m always looking for good (bad) examples.

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