by Breanne MacDonald (Technical Editor @ ASCENT)
“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
This is a standard definition of plain language that was created by the International Plain Language Federation (iplfederation.org). More and more organizations around the world are adopting the use of plain language for all kinds of documents, including websites, training guides, and legal documents. They are recognizing the importance of producing communications that are easily understood by their intended audiences.
This may be especially true when writing for a technical audience, particularly when the goal is to teach new users software or design skills, as we do with our learning guides here at ASCENT. You want your audience to be able to understand your content the first time they read it.
There are extensive resources available for learning how to write using plain language, but I believe there are three main things you can look at to get started:
- Your audience and purpose
- The language you use
- Your document’s structure and design
Audience and Purpose
If your goal is to produce a document that follows plain language principles, the first thing you should do is look at your audience and the purpose of your document – before you start writing. Consider the age, education, skills, and profession of your audience. This will help you determine the appropriate vocabulary, style, tone, and reading level to use. It will also help guide you when you are deciding what to include in your document. What will your audience already know and what background information will they need to understand your text? What are they trying to learn or accomplish by reading your document?
The language you use in your document should be at a level that your audience will be comfortable with. Jargon should generally be avoided or, in the case of more specialized texts, clearly explained so that your readers will understand it. Use simpler terms where possible and be consistent with your terminology. This is especially important for our ASCENT learning guides as they can contain a lot of technical terms. We strive to be consistent throughout the guide while also making sure that the terms used are consistent with what is used in the software being taught. This ensures continuity for our audience and makes it easier to connect the concepts in the book to the software interface.
Document Structure and Design
It is also important to look at the structure and design of your document. Breaking information up into manageable chunks, using headings, lists, and bullets, and including images, diagrams, and other graphics can help your readers navigate through your document and makes the information easier to find and use. In our ASCENT guides, we use bullets, numbered lists, and lots of figures to make the text clear and easy to follow. You should also look at the organization of your document. Put the information in a logical order and start with what your audience will want or need to know first. (See how everything goes back to your intended audience? It’s an essential first step!)
Once your document is written, be sure to take the time to evaluate it to make sure it follows these plain language principles and is appropriate for your audience.
For a list of plain language resources or to learn about ASCENT’s technical editing services, please email us at tech.writing@ASCENTed.com.