Back in the Dark Ages of 1996 when I got my start as a copywriter, we weren’t quite sure about how this whole Internet thing was going to play out. What we did have an abundance of back then was forms and booklets – and lots of them. The agency where I worked specialized in helping large companies look at their communications systems holistically and streamline the amount that they were printing. In particular, we found that redundant language and “fine print” often led companies to print more pages than they really needed.

Of course, saving money by printing fewer pages is nice but simplifying and “de-wording” also became an important part of the company’s voice. Having easier to understand materials makes companies seem friendlier, easier to do business with, and more approachable.

Here is an example of how one health insurance provider was able to create shorter, more direct, and reader-focused copy:

Before: This Grievance Procedure must be used if the nature of the complaint deals with the quality of services given to the Member, including complaints about waiting times, physician demeanor and behavior, or adequacy of facilities (as opposed to whether or not a particular service is a Covered Service and what amount, if any, should be paid). (56 words)

After: If you have a complaint about quality of service received, waiting times, physician behavior, or the adequacy of medical facilities, please use our grievance process. If you have a complaint about coverage or payment, please use the procedure detailed in Section X. (42 words)

The federal government was one of the first organizations to recognize the value of plain language writing. First introduced in 1998, the Securities & Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook remains a classic reference for how to simplify jargon. The government has since made plain language a priority with the passage of the Plain Writing Act in 2010.

Why is Plain Language Beneficial?

According to plainlanguage.gov, there are numerous benefits to implementing simple language. Everyone is busy, and none of us has time to pore over dense documents. In that sense, providing information in plain language is good customer service and makes life easier for others.

Not only can people grasp the important points about your products and services more quickly; they also have a better understanding of what they’ve read. If you’re explaining a technical concept, having user-friendly definitions, descriptions and examples helps foster a stronger relationship with your customers and prospects. If your document gives clear instructions, readers are more likely to understand them and follow them correctly.

For some businesses, this can mean fewer calls to a call center or fewer errors to correct on forms. In some cases, clear language can help avoid litigation. As plainlanguage.gov puts it, “Though no one knows the total cost of poor communication, the information we do have suggests it’s high. Writing in plain language isn’t easy, but it pays off in positive results.”

Tips for Applying Plain English to Your Writing

A hallmark of plain English is truly knowing your readers and presenting information in a manner and order in which they need to understand it.

To make your writing less complicated and more direct, here are some tips to follow:

  • Whenever possible, choose active voice over passive voice. Active voice provides a clearer indication of roles and responsibilities.
    • Example:
      • Passive: The following information must be included in the application for it to be considered complete.
      • Active: You must include the following information in your application.
    • Write in a conversational tone, including using personal pronouns like “I” and “You.”
    • Use the simplest word that conveys your meaning. Avoid jargon unless your reader is familiar with it. If they’re not, offer a brief explanation or description.
    • Keep sentences short. One guideline recommends an average of 15-20 words per sentence.
    • Write positively! Positive sentences are shorter and easier to understand than their negative counterparts.
      • Example:
        • Before: Persons other than the primary beneficiary may not receive these dividends.
        • After: Only the primary beneficiary may receive these dividends.
      • You can also shorten your sentences by replacing a negative phrase with a single word that means the same thing.
        • Before: not able, not accept, not often
        • After: unable, reject, rarely

As the International Plain Language Foundation says, a plain language communication has succeeded if its intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information!

This post is courtesy of MMC Content Manager Beth Glavosek.