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February: Plain Language

Access Tip of the Month

In this month’s tip, we learn what “plain language” is and why it’s important. We also explore resources for writing plain language.

Why do we write?

Unless we are writing notes to ourselves or journaling, we usually write because we want to share useful or meaningful information. This could be personal writing, like sharing a story on Facebook or inviting people to an event. It could be professional writing, like explaining a policy or guiding people through required steps to get a service they need.

In every case, sharing information involves our sending a message and someone else receiving it.

When we use plain language, our meaning is clearer. Other people are more likely to understand and respond to our message.

 What is Plain Language?

Plain language is writing in a clear and usable way. If we are using plain language: our audience finds what it needs, understands what it finds, and can use what it finds to meet its needs. Plain language is useful to many people, including people with cognitive disabilities, people who primarily read or speak a language besides English, individuals with less formal education, and those encountering a new topic.

Plain language recognizes that we all have a right to understand.

There are a variety of strategies for writing in plain language. We can start today using this quick, one-page guide.

Put the audience first

Many people mistakenly believe that plain language means eliminating any nuance or complexity. Or that plain language means “writing for everyone.”

Plain language can be technical and should be written with your specific audience in mind.  Plain language publications for engineers can use engineering terms and publications for youth can use popular slang.

 Plain language requires considering what knowledge, skills, and experience our audience brings to our material. A writer who says they are writing “for everyone,” or “for the public,” needs to think more carefully about which part of “the public,” is most likely to need and use their writing.

What does your audience need to get from this material? And what do they need to be able to do next?

Share information in many ways

Use  formatting, images, and other strategies to communicate your message clearly. Don’t forget to make your images accessible.

This is how all the cool people do it

Plain Language strategies are a best practice for creating usable, accessible materials. They are also required by Oregon State Law and Portland’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan.

Let’s embrace Plain Language in everything we create. Together, we can turn confusion into clarity.