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  • Writer's pictureAnnette Wierstra

Plain Language: Beyond the Dust

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

The term plain language brings with it dust and dryness that is accompanied by Institutes and Organizations who advocate for it. Governments adopt it. Legal entities and banks decry its benefits. Which all must lead us to the conclusion that plain language is dull and best left for those forced to write practical policy and procedures and other documents our readers only read out of duress.

But I aim to argue this point; plain language doesn’t mean boring language.
Grassy field with text overlaid: Plain language isn't about using the simplest word; it's about using the best word for your audience.

Plain language is not flowery, but nor is it empty of flourishes. It simply aims to use words with impact and descriptions with clarity to fully communicate a subject. It isn’t about using the simplest word; it’s about using the best word for your audience. This is a skill not only for the business writer, but also the creative writer. It allows the writer to play with word choices while searching for the best word for the reader and the purpose. This create clarity rather than obfuscation.

Consider its advocates. Writers from Chaucer to Hawthorne, from Shakespeare to Orwell advocate for simplicity and clarity in writing. Mark Twain once wrote, “Anybody can have ideas—the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

The challenge is that getting those ideas into a single, glittering paragraph is hard work. Perhaps harder than one might think. Philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “The letter I have written today is longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter.” Plain writing requires a clear, tight mandate with no wandering sidelines. To pare down a complex subject to its essential meaning, you need to fully understand it, whether that subject is a policy, a procedure, or a fictional character’s intentions. It is as much about editing as it is about composing.

Cover of On Writing Well by William Zinsser
So no. I don’t believe that plain language is boring writing; I believe it’s good writing.

In our plain language workshop, we discuss the practical tips for writing plain language, but we will also discuss how those tips are enacted with flexibility. Our workshop is not about learning a step by step procedure to plain language, but a road map with many paths to that final destination depending on who you are writing to and why you are writing. Contact us to book a plain language workshop for your team.

Originally written for Third Verb plain language workshop. Contact us to book a plain language workshop for your team.

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