Plain Language Doesn’t Have to Be Plain


I had a really great conversation with one of my coworkers the other day about the concept of “plain language” which really got me thinking about writing across all parts of government–local, state, federal… Here in the federal government, we talk about plain language–which is the idea that language should be easy to understand for everyone quite frequently. It’s a big part of what I do as a Digital Storyteller. I want my stories to be accessible and understandable (as well as interesting and exciting!) for everyone.

But the term: “plain language” makes people think it has to be boring, based on the textbook definition of the word “plain:” simple or ordinary in character.

But that isn’t the case.

Plain language can be engaging, fun, and insightful. It can be relatable, understandable, and, perhaps most importantly, interesting. Using plain language is one of the easier ways to make government (and its content!) more approachable.

Here are some of my favorite web-writing tips from the incredibly useful

  • Less is more! Be concise!
    • This is one of the most important things. If I’m thinking about content as a normal Internet user and not as a government employee, I don’t want to be smacked with a wall of text when I land on a page. I want to be able to find exactly what I’m looking for almost immediately. Being concise is a huge contributor to this.
  • Write using the same words readers would use when doing a search.
    • Knowing the terms readers will use will make a big difference.
  • Don’t assume your readers have knowledge of the subject or have read related pages on your site. Explain things so each page can stand on its own.
    • This is the most important thing. Readers shouldn’t have to open a new tab and do a “define:[term]” search or a search through the rest of the page in order to figure out what the page is saying. Each page should be able to stand alone, becoming almost a one-stop-shop for users.

What I’ve found personally is that if pages are easy to read, they’re more likely to be shared. Which is probably the coolest part of what I do.

Do you have any suggestions or tips and tricks for writing in plain language?

Jessica Stapf is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

Often, the difference between “plain language” and not-plain language, is the difference between saying what you feel an obligation or impulse to *say*, and what people reading it need to *hear*. You can never go wrong trying to imagine your reader’s informational/comprehension needs, and working to meet them. You’d be pleasantly surprised at how much needless terminology can be shed by simply thinking about the reader or end-user of the information. None of that stops one from being engaging, inspiring, colorful, or complying with any organizational common-look-and-feel requirements.

LaRel Rogers

Awesome and useful blog post Jessica! I always find it difficult to write for a government audience on a topic they may know more about. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be as descriptive as possible – because nothing worst than having to open up the second tab and searching for more information on the topic like you noted. Thanks for sharing I’ll def be checking out!

Olivia Jefferson

Great blog Jessica, very good tips in here. As a writer myself, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember that less is more. I actually spend more time cutting down my posts than I do writing the post in the first place. Concise writing and precise language are both such overlooked, yet simple and important elements of any good piece of writing.