Plain writing is good writing

Plain writing is good writing

Clear writing is good, right? I certainly believe that to be true (after 25 years of teaching technical writing in corporations and organizations). I know that most people seek to write clearly and most readers appreciate reading clear technical and business writing.

That’s why I teach the 5Cs of good writing—that writing must meet these five requirements:

  • Complete
  • Consistent
  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Correct

These 5Cs, and especially the third quality, are also the bedrock of the Plain Language (PL) movement (more about this movement shortly). However, I don’t advertise that my 5Cs correlate to PL because I fear that the stigma of the word “plain” will turn people away (think “plain Jane”). So I substitute “clear” for “plain” and sail on.

PL appeals to many governments; for example, the state of Minnesota and the Federal government have adopted PL mandates. I recently taught a webinar about PL for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and offer some of its highlights here:

Why care about clear writing?

PL saves readers time because they read your text once and understand it. Note, however, that PL does not save you time—instead, it takes you more time to create PL. Nevertheless, writing clearly (in PL) encourages more compliance. PL also can reach a wider audience (often readers who are bilingual with English being their second language). And writing in PL just makes you look smarter!

But what is PL?

It’s probably easier to show PL examples and then tell you what PL is NOT. There are some really clear examples of PL on the Federal website, but here’s my favorite from the legal world:

Not  PL PL
“Whereas, on or about the night prior to Christmas, there did occur at a certain improved piece of real property (hereinafter ‘the house’), a general lack of stirring by all creatures therein, including, but not limited to, a mouse.” “Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

Which would you rather read? I thought so! Me, too.

What PL is NOT

PL is sometimes confused with three other language movements or measurements: Simplified English, Controlled Language, or readability statistics:

  • Simplified English (internationalization) was originally promoted by the AECMA (the European Association of Aerospace Industries) to provide a controlled version of language specific to aircraft maintenance. Simplified English simplifies syntax, limits the number of words used and their meanings, and limits the parts of speech.
  • Controlled Language has 10 specific rules for creating language that is easier to translate.
  • Readability statistics provide a limited measure (score) of readability. There are many readability formulas; each one has its own limitations, and all of them produce results that are superficial.

PL is much more comprehensive than these language movements, and it produces better communication at each of these levels:

  • Word
  • Sentence
  • Paragraph
  • Document

In my next few blogs, I’ll show you how to use PL to improve each level of your communication. You’ll see that PL is simple to employ, but not easy.

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