Accessibility NSW often receives questions about creating content that is easy for everyone to understand and access. In the age of information overload, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively online is essential. Whether you're crafting a blog post, a professional report, or even a casual email, writing in plain language is essential to ensure your message gets across. But what exactly does it mean to write in plain language? Here are five tips to help you do just that.
1. Know your audience
The first step to effective communication is understanding your audience. Before you put your fingers to the keyboard, take a moment to consider who you're addressing. Are you writing for the general public, a specialised group, or a mix of both?
Different readers have varying levels of familiarity with certain concepts and vocabulary. For instance, an astrophysicist would understand complex space terminology, while someone with little knowledge of space might not. Therefore, it's important to tailor your writing to your audience's needs and expectations.
Avoid the temptation to write for everyone. The more specific you are in identifying your audience and your communication goals, the more focused and engaging your writing will become.
2. Choose familiar words
Plain language is all about simplicity. Use words that your audience is likely to understand, rather than reaching for fancy or complicated terms that could confuse readers. Remember, clarity should always trump complexity.
Steer clear of slang, idioms, and branded terms, as their familiarity can vary widely among different groups. If you must use technical terms, provide clear explanations to ensure your readers are on the same page.
3. Keep it short and sweet
Brevity is the soul of wit, as the saying goes. When writing online, keep your sentences and paragraphs concise. A good rule of thumb is to aim for sentences with no more than 15–20 words and one clear idea per paragraph.
Remove redundancies, idioms, pointless modifiers, and meaningless generalities from your writing. Clear and concise content allows your audience to focus on the information itself rather than deciphering convoluted sentences.
4. Adjust the reading level
The Australian Government Style Manual recommends that you aim for a reading level similar to what a 12 to 14-year-old can easily understand, which is typically around Year 7 in school. This is also consistent with WCAG 2.1 best practice.
Remember that readability is not a reflection of intelligence; it's about ensuring that your message is accessible and easily understood. Use tools like Microsoft Word's grammar checker to measure the readability of your text and adjust accordingly.
5. Format for readability
The way you present your content matters just as much as the words you use. Follow web-formatting rules to enhance the readability of your text. Below are some key formatting tips to make it easier for readers to scan your content and find the information they need quickly.
- Informative headlines and sub headlines
- Bulleted lists
- Adequate white space and indentation
- Highlighting keywords and phrases
- Including an overview or summary for longer articles
Examples of plain language vs. technical language
Below is an example of content written in plain language and a version in complex, technical language:
Plain language: Healthy soil is the foundation of a thriving garden. You can improve your soil's health by adding organic compost. Compost enriches the soil with essential nutrients and enhances its structure.
Technical language: Edaphic vigor serves as the substratal fulcrum upon which phytogenic vitality pivots. Augmentation of soil health ensues through the incorporation of biogenic compost, thereby ameliorating nutrient profile diversity and hydraulic porosity of the edaphic matrix.
In this example, the plain language sentence is simple and easy to understand for most people. It conveys that good soil is essential for a thriving garden and that adding organic compost improves soil health by providing nutrients and enhancing its structure.
The technical language version conveys the same message but employs more complex terminology.
For more information on creating content that everyone can use, check out the Accessibility and Inclusivity Toolkit. Within it, you can find the resources, tools, and training needed to help you meet accessibility guidelines and ensure that your products and services are accessible to everyone, regardless of abilities.