The myth I hear often as a writer is:
‘My target readers are professionals with higher education.’
In the story about my plumber client, it was tempting to ignore his feedback. I could have argued that his clients are likely to have a higher level of education. He hadn’t gone to college but they may have.
I could have dismissed his feedback because he wasn’t the writer. I was.
But that would have been a mistake.
You see, writing simply isn’t about education or ego.
Our readers are bombarded with content from all directions, every day. They choose to spend mental energy on some tasks.
They can’t put 100% of their energies into everything that calls for their attention every day.
Complex writing slows them.
Usability experts, Nielsen Norman Group discovered even experts prefer plain language.
Peter Butt is a founding Director of the Law and Justice Foundation in New South Wales, Australia.
In a seminar about the Plain Language Law for Non-Lawyers, he shared 4 great reasons to write in plain language:
- It is possible to express legal concepts in plain language
- Plain language saves money
- Judges prefer plain language
- The public prefers plain language
If legal professionals realize the value of plain language, we need to take notice.
Key takeaway: College-educated professionals and experts appreciate plain language.
Next, we’ll look at 5 ways to write plainly so we can help our readers glide through our content.
Writing plainly takes more effort than it seems. These 5 tips will give you a kickstart:
- Write at a lower secondary reading level
- Write conversationally
- Choose simple words over complex ones
- Cut sentences
- Clarify acronyms
In Lower Literacy Users: Writing for a Broad Consumer Audience, Nielsen Norman Group recommends we write at a grade 6 level on homepages. And a grade 8 level on other web pages.
A lower secondary level is defined by the W3C as more than 9 years of school. If the content isn’t at that level, then extra content needs to be shared at a lower reading level.
What reading level is your writing?
A helpful tool to help you write in plain language
Plain language is subjective.
The Hemingway Editor tool is a quick way to find out the reading level of your content.
It also shares tips to help you cut down the reading level if it’s too high.
A plain language writing example
Cut and paste the paragraph below into the Hemingway Editor — you’ll see it’s at a postgraduate reading level. It’s a portion from a research paper summary:
If the major reviews in this area are correct, people seeking to maximize happiness should forego the pursuit of money, beauty, and material possessions, and instead devote their lives to developing and maintaining close personal relationships. However, close examination of these reviews reveals that authors rarely address the link between the existence of social relationships and greater well-being. Instead, they focus on whether people are satisfied with their relationships or whether they value relationships over and above other life goals.
Before you keep reading, have a go at rewriting the paragraph in plain language. Aim for a level 8 readability level.
This rewrite brought the content to a grade 6 level:
If the major reviews in this area are correct, people who want to be happy should stop pursuing money, beauty, or material things. They should devote their lives to close relationships.
However, the authors rarely look at the link between relationships and well-being. They focus on whether:
1. people are happy with their relationships
2. they value relationships more than other life goals
Key takeaway: Write at a lower secondary reading level.