The purpose of a plain-language approach in written communication is to convey information easily and unambiguously. It should not be confused with an oversimplified, condescending style. Rather, by choosing straightforward vocabulary and sentence structures and by organizing and presenting your material clearly and logically, you can save the reader time and effort and ensure that your message will be clearly understood.
The Government of Canada calls for plain language to be used in its communications with the public:
The obligation to inform the public includes the obligation to communicate effectively. Information about government policies, programs and services should be clear, objective and simple, and presented in a manner that is readily understandable. Messages should convey information relevant to public needs, use plain language and be expressed in a clear and consistent style.1
The need to provide relevant information in a clear and simple way also applies to communications within and between departments. Many types of documents are written by public servants for other public servants: memorandums, information on employee benefits, health and safety manuals, work plans, departmental policies, performance appraisals and so on. Use of plain language will help ensure that your message comes across clearly and that readers take appropriate action.
The starting point of any writing project should be to identify the intended readership, the purpose of the material and the desired impact. Before you start writing, ask yourself the following questions:
Are you writing for specialists, young people, all taxpayers, or a group whose first language is not English?
Do they need the details or just an overview, the historical context and the reasons behind the decision or merely an explanation of the decision’s impact on them? What needs to be emphasized?
Will they use it to make a decision, to determine whether they are eligible for something, to carry out a procedure? Will they need to read the entire document or concentrate on one or two sections?
Use a personal tone in your writing. Address your readers directly and include examples, where appropriate, to illustrate important points.
For example, write
Decide what information is most important to include and structure it in such a way that the document is logically presented and easily understood. Do this by putting yourself in the reader’s place: What is the most important thing you would want to know if you were the reader? What would help you find the information needed?
See Chapter 11 Reports and Minutes for detailed information on the organization of reports.
(a) Use simple, familiar words and phrases for clarity. In the list below, the column on the right gives a more straightforward and often shorter way to express the same idea:
|After this is accomplished||Then|
|at an early date||soon|
|facilitate||help, make possible|
|five in number||five|
|in the absence of||without|
|It would be appropriate for me |
to begin by saying that
|owing to the fact that||because, since|
(b) Choose verbs over verb-noun phrases to make your sentences clear and concise. For example, readers will understand your message more readily if you replace the phrase on the left with the word on the right:
|carry out an examination of||examine|
|effect an improvement to||improve|
|ensure maintenance of||maintain|
|give consideration to||consider|
|make an enquiry||enquire|
The following sentence becomes much more transparent if the two verb-noun phrases are replaced with verbs:
(c) Concise writing is generally clearer. Cut out unnecessary words to shorten sentences.
For example, write
(d) Avoid jargon and unfamiliar acronyms or expressions, especially when writing for the public. Even for internal documents, consider using an alternative expression if some of your readers may not know the specialized term. Expressions such as roll out, stakeholder and re-engineering may be unclear except to a specialized audience and tend to be overused.
Sometimes an unfamiliar term is best omitted altogether. For example, the following sentence contains a Latin phrase—ceteris paribus (meaning "other things being equal")—which will confuse many readers and which adds little if any meaning:
The sentence could be written more clearly and concisely as follows:
Administrative jargon and officialese can cloud the message and make it incomprehensible to many readers:
(e) Explain complicated ideas. Make sure that complex notions or subtle distinctions are clarified. The following sentence requires specialized knowledge on the reader’s part:
Is it clear to the reader how "locked-in RRSPs" differ from other RRSPs and what the distinction between "life annuities" and "life income funds" is? If not, explain these notions before going on.
(f) Avoid chains of nouns. Nouns can modify other nouns in English, but three or more nouns in a row can obscure the meaning: the reader has to differentiate between the concepts and decide how the nouns are interrelated. Examples of noun chains abound in administrative writing:
It is easier for the reader to understand the message if some of the nouns are linked by prepositions such as of, for, to and in. The first example could be reformulated as "a review of increases in departmental expenditures." Although the revised version uses more words, it is clearer and simpler to read.
Sentences are the basic building blocks of any written material and must be designed to convey the message effectively. To achieve this objective, keep them relatively short, avoid verbiage, link your ideas logically and use the active voice. The same principles apply to paragraphs.
Keep sentences concise. Limit your sentences to one idea and avoid information overload. A sentence such as the one that follows is difficult to understand on first reading because it contains too much information:
The points could be more effectively expressed in two or three sentences:
In the sentence
almost all of the first line is superfluous and there are no fewer than four subordinate clauses. Eliminate the filler material and recast the sentence to highlight the main idea:
Paragraphs, too, should be limited to one point, or to a series of related points if the information is not complicated.
Make your point clearly. Avoid empty introductory phrases and padding that obscure the meaning of a sentence. These include expressions such as "I would like to begin by indicating clearly to you that . . ." and "If this step, which may be necessary in some but not all cases, is deemed appropriate . . . ."
Say what you need to say concisely and clearly. Link ideas within sentences and paragraphs by giving your readers "signposts." Cohesion can be achieved in various ways, including the use of linking words (moreover, however and so on) and references to the topic at hand ("The new policy on . . . ," "This policy," "It").
Use the active voice. While the passive voice is useful in moderation and is common in administrative writing, it tends to be wordy and impersonal. Give preference to the active voice, in which the subject conveys the action and is generally near the beginning of the sentence, making it easier for the reader to understand the message:
Convey your message positively. Where possible, use positive words to make your point. For example, write
Readers may miss or misinterpret short negatives such as no, not, none and never and negative words beginning with in-, non- and un-, particularly if several of them occur in the same paragraph. Such misreadings could have a serious effect on users’ decisions and actions. So if you cannot reword positively, consider highlighting the negative by using boldface or italics.
Readers, especially members of the public, are more likely to read and use documents that are designed with plain language principles in mind. You can make your document more appealing visually and easier to read by removing obstacles to communication in various ways:
Choose appropriate type. Serif typefaces (such as Times Roman and Palatino), which have small lines at the ends of the letter strokes, are easier to read because they direct the reader’s eye from letter to letter. Serif faces are therefore recommended for text, while sans-serif typefaces, such as Helvetica, provide contrast when used in headings.
The size of the type should generally be at least 10 points. Twelve-point type or larger may be required for readers with visual impairments.
Use open space. Provide extra white space around headings, lists, boxes and other visual elements to draw attention to the information in them.
Leave one extra line space between paragraphs if you are using the block format (see 10.02 Block style). If using the indent style (see 10.03 Indent style), do not leave an extra line space, except in correspondence.
Break information down into lists, introduced by bullets or numbers. This opens up the document and guides your readers.
Words in lower case have distinctive shapes that are easy to recognize. Entire lines of capitalized text are difficult to read because the letters are all the same size. Similarly, left-justified text, with a ragged right edge, is more readable. In text with a justified right margin, the spacing between letters and words can be irregular and difficult to control, and the eye becomes tired from having to adjust constantly.
Create contrast. Use headings, subheadings and visual elements to produce contrast and lead your readers through the document. Colour and varied styles and sizes of type can also help create contrast. However, excessive use of lines, colours and visuals may distract readers’ attention from your message.
It is important to test and revise a document before it is distributed or published.
Techniques for revision and proofreading are outlined in Chapter 16 Revision and Proofreading. However, it is also a good idea to check the readability and transparency of your document before it is released for distribution. A trial run with a potential reader or colleague who has knowledge of the target readership could be a useful test. Surveys, focus groups or field tests would provide an even more thorough indication as to whether your document will get the message across simply and clearly to the intended readership.
The steps involved in revision will vary according to individual preference and working conditions. If time is limited, it is important to decide which features of the text should be given priority—style, usage and overall format, or just spelling and grammar. The following sequence is designed to ensure that the process is carried out in a logical, thorough manner. One or more steps may be combined in order to expedite matters, and you may want to take a second look at certain problems or pages requiring further revision or research (see checklist in 16.08 Revision checklist). But keep in mind that the most effective approach is to check for one broad category of error at a time.
(a) Content check
Reread the whole draft for omissions, obvious factual errors, and lack of clarity or illogicality in the flow of ideas. Although not a problem of form, failure to situate each sentence in the context of the whole argument and to ensure that each idea flows logically from the previous sentences and paragraphs is a common shortcoming, which a reviser should detect and, if not correct, at least bring to the attention of the writer.
Rectify any problems, after speaking with the author if necessary. You may have to compare the current draft with an earlier one in order to ensure that no paragraphs, illustrations or tables have been dropped.
(b) Style and usage; plain language
Correct any weaknesses of the types listed below early in the revision process. As in step (a), they may require recasting of parts or all of a sentence or paragraph, as well as significant deletions.
People who are within five years of retirement will be attritted.
While most job seekers spend fewer than five hours a week looking for a job, job seeking is considered a full-time job in the Job Finding Club.
Presentation of the new provincial prison program will be postponed pending further planning.
(c) Uniform vocabulary
Ensure that only one term is used for the same concept ("eligibility for/admissibility to/right to benefits").
(d) Elimination of stereotyping
Correct any parts of the text that fail to give a fair and representative picture of women, ethnic and visible minorities, Aboriginal people and people with disabilities. Here, too, corrections may necessitate structural change.
At this stage the paragraph and sentence structure of the text is to all intents and purposes final. You can begin to check the more technical features.
(e) Names and titles; geographical names; addresses
168 Radcliffe Crescent
168, Radcliffe Crescent
(f) Spelling; punctuation; hyphenation and compounding; abbreviations; numerical expressions; grammar
Because of deletions and recasting of phrases and sentences, pay particular attention to punctuation, capitalization and grammar. For instance, sentences may lack a verb, an initial capital letter, a co-ordinating conjunction, or an essential punctuation mark. Redundancy may also have been introduced.
The following types of error are commonplace.
The customer service thrust of this and other departments have been poorly communicated to the general public.
The Tab and Caps Lock key is found on the left-hand side of the keyboard.
What to do about it?
What should we do about it?
Cod stocks were dropping at an alarming rate, swift action had to be taken.
(co-ordinating conjunction and required after rate)
Omitting the overture, the music began.
Arising out of a conflict of personalities, the Director General, Finance and Administration, felt compelled to resign and move on.
Ross Rebagliati snowboarded down the ski slope, which is now a recognized event in winter olympics competition.
Sam visited his brother every day while he was unemployed.
The new sales program was stimulating and a challenge.
( . . . challenging.)
The solution lies not in prohibition or censorship but in developing self-control.
( . . . the development of . . .)
This type of product has three advantages:
Aircraft land and take off from Winnipeg airport at very short intervals.
( . . . land at . . .)
The building is as old, if not older than, the Library of Parliament.
( . . . as old as . . .)
(g) Reference notes
If solutions are not readily available, make a note of problems to be resolved and conduct the required research after steps (a) to (h) have been completed. You can thus avoid frequent interruptions to your work.
(j) Final check
Reread the revised text for uniformity and completeness.
See 16.08 Revision checklist for revision checklist.
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