“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” – Hans Hofmann
Finally, 2020 is behind us. And with a new year, you have opportunities to ditch old writing habits and support clarity (because last year brought us enough confusion, right?!). To make 2021 the year for clear writing, follow these 7 plain language tips that help clear up confusion and clean up your content.
1. Write for your audiences.
The content you share is not about you (sorry!) — all messages are for your audiences. You may have something you need to say, but that message means nothing without an audience to care and listen. So, be sure you write for the people you’re communicating with and not for yourself.
What to do? Use a “you” voice that brings audiences into your conversation. And avoid relying on “we” or “I” language that focuses the message on yourself.
2. Be transparent.
Transparency is not a corporate buzzword that you can choose to care about. People have a right to understand the information and details that affect their lives. Plus, 72% of people are even willing to pay a premium price for companies that are fully transparent. You can be transparent by being forthright with information — and you can support transparency through how you write. In short, care to be clear.
What to do? To get started, put key points at the start of your message. And use short, simple sentences to streamline how you share details.
3. Ask questions.
Your audiences have communication needs they want you to meet. So, you must frame information that speaks to these goals by answering the questions they come to your content with. Question framing helps you lead with empathy and write with your audiences’ needs in mind (remember, it’s not about you).
What to do? Brainstorm the questions your audiences have about the information across their content experience. You can even use these questions to create Tables of Contents and headers that guide people through your content.
4. Support accessibility needs.
Here’s a fact: 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have a disability — that’s 26% of the population. And globally, 15% of the population has a disability. Yet, content creators frequently leave these audiences behind, meaning they also leave this audience’s purchasing dollars on the table.
What to do? You can start supporting accessibility by writing alt-text descriptions for images you share online. And be sure to use subtitles on videos you create.
5. Use shorter sentences.
Short sentences are easier to read and comprehend, which means people are better able to understand your message. The longer the sentence, the higher the chance that details are lost and people will stop reading. So, be brief with every sentence you write.
What to do? Use one main point per sentence. And aim for 25 words or fewer — 18 is even better.
6. Stop using legalese.
Worldwide, people don’t like reading legalese — not even people with PhDs. You also make essential details nearly impossible to understand, meaning people can’t access information and don’t know what they’re agreeing to. The American Bar Association supports using plain language. Judges even prefer the informal style. So, make 2021 the year you decided to banish all the hereto, notwithstanding, and hereinafter words for good.
What to do? Remove all legal jargon and Latin. If you feel you must keep the word, define the term in its first use (but preferably, aim for the first tip).
7. Use the active voice.
The active voice means you write sentences with a clear noun-verb-object agreement, so you directly state who does an action (like, The chicken crossed the road.). With passive voice, you include a “to be” verb in your structure with the past tense, which often creates longer sentences. You can also drop your main noun that does the action (like, The road was crossed by the chicken or The road was crossed.) Simply put, your sentences become less wordy, more transparent, and clearer when you use active voice.
What to do? Find verbs that combine a “to be” verb with a past-tense verb, or look for a “by the” clause at the end of the sentence. From there, rewrite the sentence to remove this structure.
Ultimately, plain language helps people find, understand, and use information that matters to them through clear language and design. By caring to be clear, you not only create content people can better understand — you drive action as a result. And in a world of short attention spans and complex information, clear outcomes help everyone be and do the best they can.