Learn how using plain language can improve user experience, make web content more accessible to everyone, and even boost your SEO rankings.
What is plain language?
Plain language is simple, straightforward, and easy to understand communication.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 defines plain language as:
Writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.The Plain Writing Act of 2010 is a law that requires government agencies to use plain language when communicating important information to the public.
You might also hear plain language referred to as plain writing or plain English. Plain language is accessible communication.
Why should you start using plain language?
Plain language benefits you (and your business) as much as it benefits your audience.
These benefits can include:
- Better SEO results and higher search engine rankings.
- People spend more time on your site (dwell time).
- An expanded audience, including people with average/below-average reading abilities and those with certain disabilities.
- Time and money saved since information is easy to find and understand without you needing to go back and explain it to your users/customers.3
How do you use plain language?
Write for your reader:
- Know your audience and what information they want to see.
- Put the most relevant content and information first.
- Follow web-formatting rules: use headers, lists, and tables elements.
- Include only include necessary words and keep written content concise.
- Use common or familiar words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.
- Write in an active voice and positive tone whenever possible.
- Unnecessarily complex or technical words
- Long sentences or paragraphs
- Passive sentence structures
You’ve used plain language effectively if your audience can:
- Find what they need quickly
- Understand what they find
- And use what find to meet their needs
The Center for Plain Language outlines Five Steps to Plain Language:
- Identify and describe your target audience
- Structure your content to guide the reader through it
- Write the content in plain language
- Use information design to help readers see and understand
- Work with your target user groups to test the design and content
For detailed, yet easy-to-read explanations of each step, take a look at the original article, “Five Steps to Plain Language”, from the Center for Plain Languages.
Also check out this “Checklist for Plain Language on the Web“, from plainlanguage.gov. It outlines 14 tips to help you write in plain language online. Both of the above-linked articles are great resources to help you start using plain language in your own writing and web content.
Why is plain language important?
Plain language is accessible language. It helps ensure that everyone can understand and use the information you share. Plus, the majority of people, even experts, prefer to read below their actual readability level.1 Overly academic, long, poorly organized, or complex writing is less reader-friendly. It is also less accessible to large chunks of your potential audience.
Plain language is particularly important for people who:
- Use assistive technology to search the web.
- Speak English as a second language or live outside of the USA.
- Read at an average (7th/8th grade) or below-average reading level.
- Have cognitive, memory, or learning disabilities.1
The average American is able to read at about a 7th/8th grade (12-14 years old) readability level.2 The U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy found that some 32 million adults in the United States can’t read, and approximately 50% of Americans read at an 8th-grade readability level or lower.5 Additionally, 1 in 4 Americans live with a disability of some kind, and many disabilities impact people’s ability to read or concentrate.
When information is important, plain language is critical. The general public must be able to access and understand things like medical forms, legal documents, contracts, government forms, and emergency communications. The failure to communicate these things in a clear and concise way could majorly impact or even put lives at risk.
“Plain Language For Everyone, Even Experts” with Hoa Loranger
A common myth I hear about plain language is that it dumbs down the content. This complaint is often the loudest among authors who write for academics and experts. Some writers use an academic tone out of tradition or as a way to impress readers. The notion that long sentences and showy words make you sound smarter or make you appear more professional is not true. What it does do is decrease the readability of your copy and the credibility of your site. We’ve conducted many studies with highly skilled professionals and we’ve never seen anyone complain when text was easy to understand. Good communication is good for your audiences, but it’s also good for your business. Companies who write clearly are perceived to possess greater transparency and credibility than companies that don’t. Studies also show that when people understand what you write, it makes you look smarter. All writers, including people who create technical content, owe it to readers to communicate information succinctly. Remember, the primary goal of communication is to convey information. There are strong advantages to straightforward writing. First, it takes less effort to decipher. No one wants to waste mental effort to decoding convoluted sentences. So, clearer writing allows people to spend energy on learning your content. Secondly, plain language benefits everyone, from advanced readers to international audiences who use English as a second language. If your content is meant to appeal to an international audience, plain language is even more critical. Third, when your copy contains words that your users use frequently and are familiar with, that content often gains better results in search engines. When people type in a query, your content will more likely show up in search results because you’ve considered their vocabulary. So what do I recommend? Forget about the conventions of technical writing. Don’t try to sound like traditional reports and articles. They tend to be verbose and difficult to understand. If you think clearly, you’ll express yourself clearly.
Plain Language Online
Think about how you search the web and read things online. Do you read every word on the page or do you quickly skim through content to find what you are looking for? Most people don’t read very much when they’re searching the web. People want to find what they are looking for quickly and with as little effort as possible.
When you’re sharing something online, your audience will not all be able to read at the same level. People have a range of different physical or cognitive abilities. Your online audience will likely come from a variety of backgrounds and many will speak languages other than English. Using plain language online will help make your writing/content accessible to as many of these people as possible.
How does plain language impact SEO?
Search engines, like Google, also have an easier time reading and ranking websites that use plain language. People search the web using simple and short search phrases. Search engines want to put the most relevant and helpful search results first so their users have an effortless search experience.4
Web content that is written in plain language uses common and clear words. These words are more likely to match up with the search terms being used by real people. Additionally, lists, tables, and relevant images also help people quickly locate the information they need. Understanding your audience and their search intent will help you write and organize content in a reader-friendly way.
To learn more about using clear words and accessible language in your writing, check out this article from the W3C Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 3.0.
In conclusion, everyone benefits when things are easily accessible. Plain language helps remove barriers between your message and your audience. So leave out the big words. Put aside unnecessary technical terms. Shorten your sentences and break up your paragraphs. Don’t worry about the conventions of technical writing you learned in school.
Think clearly, express yourself concisely, and structure your writing/web content so it is convenient for readers of various backgrounds and reading levels.
- Loranger, H. (2017). Plain Language Is for Everyone, Even Experts. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from Nielsen Norman Group website.
- Marchand, L. (2017, March 22). What is readability and why should content editors care about it? Retrieved December 23, 2021, from Centerforplainlanguage.org website.
- plainlanguage.gov | Why use plain language? (2021). Retrieved December 23, 2021, from Plainlanguage.gov website.
- Roberts, T. (2020). Semantic Search Explained in 5 Minutes | Bloomreach. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from bloomreach.com website.
- Strauss, V. (2016, November). Hiding in plain sight: The adult literacy crisis. Retrieved December 24, 2021, from Washington Post website.
- CDC. (2019, March 8). Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic. Retrieved December 24, 2021, from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.