At the Intersection of Plain Language and Technical Communication

by Kevin Cuddihy on 16 September 2013

Guest post by Karen Field Carroll.

Plain language. Simple terms like this can be surprisingly difficult to define. In fact, people seem eager to explain what plain language isn’t before they tell you what it is. In “The Impact of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 on Technical Communicators,” Buckley Jeppson writes that plain language “… is not drab writing that sounds elementary and dull. It is not dumbed down or condescending. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of English.”

Beth Mazur, in “Revisiting Plain Language,” writes “Defining [plain language] is not unlike defining information design. Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers.”

And in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook, the authors write, “[Plain language] does not mean deleting complex information to make the document easier to understand.” (By the way, many in the field consider the SEC’s document the definitive guide for plain-language style.)

However, the authors then go on to explain what plain language (also called “plain English”) is. A paragraph from the SEC’s Handbook:

Plain English means analyzing and deciding what information investors need to make informed decisions, before words, sentences, or paragraphs are considered. A plain English document uses words economically and at a level the audience can understand. Its sentence structure is tight. Its tone is welcoming and direct. Its design is visually appealing. A plain English document is easy to read and looks like it’s meant to be read. (p. 5)

So plain language isn’t about just word choice. At its heart, I think plain language is a mindset, a discipline, a commitment to writing text that does not come between the reader and the message. This style uses wording that is neither distracting nor fascinating and a sentence structure that is sophisticated enough to read smoothly but not so complicated that the reader has to reread.

In essence, plain language is just good technical communication.

The Technical Communicator as Plain-Language Advocate

A few years ago, thanks to the efforts of many dedicated plain-language advocates, Congress passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, a law that requires government agencies to use plain language in the documents their consumers must read and understand. Now the Center for Plain Language and other advocates are lobbying for congress to pass the Plain Regulations Act of 2013, which will require all regulations to use plain language instead of the turgid legalese that afflicts them now.

Obviously, a lot of people besides technical communicators care about plain language. But we’re in a unique position to advocate for it. Because we understand and apply the principles of plain language in our work, we understand better than anyone how plain language can improve communication throughout society. We can speak intelligently about the benefits of clear communication to lawmakers and to those we encourage to support the bill.

So how can you help? First, visit http://centerforplainlanguage.org/resources/plain-regulations-act/. Read the text of the bill, download the templates of letters, and write your congressional representatives about supporting the Plain Regulations Act. Second, talk to your friends and family about the benefits of requiring regulations to use plain language. Finally, encourage your employers and any other business owners you know to do the same. Also read Dr. Annetta Cheek’s column “The Plain Regulations Act, HR 3786,” first printed in the Michigan Bar Journal, which describes some common myths about plain language and the facts that dispel them. (You can find the PDF at http://centerforplainlanguage.org/resources/plain-regulations-act. Click “Answering the critics of plain language regulations” under “Resources.”)

Learn More

To find out more about plain language in business, government, healthcare, and law, visit www.centerforplainlanguage.org. For plain language style guidelines, go to the SEC site mentioned above, and also visit www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/FederalPLGuidelines/index.cfm. To learn more about plain language in technical communication, visit my blog at www.write2help.com.

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