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Plain Language: Creating Readable Documents

Heather Matsune
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 2, 2007, page 14)

For language professionals, writing fluidly and flawlessly can be something of an effortless endeavour. There is a tendency, however, to write at too high a level for a non-specialized readership and to underestimate the importance of document design. The result can be an unreadable document. A readable document is one that you can read only once and right away understand every linguistic and typographical element. The concept of readability breaks down into two components: text readability (anything involving language) and visual readability (anything involving design).

Text readability

Simplicity is essential in all communication, especially with a broad target audience. Your readers won’t all have the same linguistic knowledge, so be sure to choose words and write sentences that are easy to read.

Familiar words

It’s best to use short, well-known words rather than long, complicated ones:

  • later or next (instead of subsequently)
  • ask (instead of enquire or inquire)
  • help or aid (instead of render assistance to)
  • Sometimes the most accurate word available can be confusing. You can usually solve that problem with a paraphrase:
  • every three months (instead of quarterly)
  • before tax (instead of gross)
  • live together (instead of cohabitate)

Concrete words

Abstract words can be problematic because they evoke no obvious mental image, which means it takes a more in-depth analysis to understand them. Concrete words are always better, but they are not always possible. To get around this problem, illustrate abstract words with examples or analogies:

  • One serving of fruits and vegetables is an amount the size of a tennis ball.

By the same token, verbs are more concrete than nouns. Long strings of nouns make your sentences heavy and slow your readers down. Consider the following two sentences:

  • The company plans to move ahead with the reduction of staffing levels, the evaluation of its managers and the setting up of a new training program. (25 words)
  • The company plans to reduce staffing levels, evaluate its managers and set up a new training program. (17 words)

Consistent vocabulary

Using synonyms for key words can seriously hinder readability. For example, referring to a person as both a "claimant" and an "applicant" in the same document may confuse your readers and lead them to believe that the synonyms refer to different people.

Short and logical sentences

Writing long sentences—convoluted constructions strung together with commas and other punctuation—takes much less effort than reading them. Help your readers out by keeping your sentences short and simple.

In English, sentences longer than 25 words are difficult to understand on first reading. And even the most seasoned readers will struggle to make sense of sentences longer than 30 words. So, aim for 15 to 20 words. Of course, that’s not a hard-and-fast rule: varying sentence length keeps a document from getting monotonous. To build short sentences and reduce the risk of mistakes in your mechanics, tackle one main idea per sentence. Also, try to write in the most logical order: subject, verb, object.

Instead of this:

  • The following are the requirements that employees must meet. (object, subject, verb)

Write this:

  • Employees must meet the following requirements. (subject, verb, object)

Using active voice helps maintain the logic of a sentence, too. Unlike passive voice, which reverses the order of whatever is happening in the sentence, active voice puts things in a natural, logical order.

Instead of this:

  • Your file will be reviewed by the director in the coming weeks. (passive voice)

Write this:

  • The director will review your file in the coming weeks. (active voice)

Clear sentences

It is distracting and confusing when non-essential information separates a verb from its subject or object. Your sentences will be easier to follow if you keep the essential elements together.

Instead of this:

  • The minister, after a lengthy consultation process with the commissioner, decided to make some recommendations.

The verb (decided) is separated from the subject (minister).

Or this:

  • The minister decided, after a lengthy consultation process with the commissioner, to make some recommendations.

The verb (decided) is separated from the object (to make some recommendations).

Write this:

  • After a lengthy consultation process with the commissioner, the minister decided to make some recommendations.

Visual readability

Getting your message across depends on more than just word choice and sentence structure. Design your document well and you can make it even easier to read. Design it poorly and your readers may get confused or distracted, or they may not read it at all.

Layout

Most of us are taught to read from left to right and top to bottom. That’s how the brain has learned to process information. To maintain that linear flow when laying out your documents, place main headings at the top left of the page, and use subheadings, vertical lists and bullets. Move graphics to where they do not disrupt the text, and eliminate any other elements that may interrupt the flow. If you can lead the eye smoothly across and down the page, you will save your readers time and energy.

White space

White space is any part of a page that is unmarked. On most pages, white space exists in the margins, in the hard returns between paragraphs and at the end of lines of text. A well-designed document reserves upwards of 50% of each page for white space. This prevents the appearance of clutter and disorganization and breaks reading tasks down into manageable chunks. Reaching that percentage is not as difficult as it sounds: just by using the default margin settings in your word processor you create a frame of white space equal to approximately 42% of the page.

Use left justification to build white space into your document. Consciously or not, your readers appreciate having a bit of a break at the end of those lines that do not stretch all the way to the right margin. However, it is acceptable for newspapers and other periodicals to use full justification to create uniform white space between their narrow columns of body text. Although this occasionally results in unnaturally wide gaps between characters and words, the predictability of the white space reduces the effort demanded of readers.

Fonts

In the past, the body of a printed document always took a serif font (e.g. Times New Roman, Garamond, Bookman Old Style) and headings and subheadings took a sans serif (e.g. Verdana, Arial, Tahoma). However, as electronic publishing has become progressively more prevalent, those conventions have become obsolete. Certain types of publications can take liberties with their font selection, but for most business writing, it’s still best to stick to the standards:

  • Times New Roman for print materials
  • Arial for print or Web materials
  • Verdana for Web materials

Also, choose a font size that meets the needs of your readers:

  • 10–12 for specialized readers
  • 12 for general readers
  • 14-16 for seniors and people with visual impairments

Decorative fonts may be eye-catching, but they tend to distract your readers. For the same reason, italicized, underlined and bold text, as well as words in all upper-case characters, should be used sparingly. Avoid low-contrast formatting: black font on a white background gives you the highest contrast possible and looks clean and crisp.

With thorough planning and revision, you can maximize text and visual readability. By applying this principle of plain language, you can help your readers understand your message quickly.