“If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.” Albert Einstein.
This is so true for all of us. As discussed earlier in part 1, plain language isn’t only about simple usage of vocabulary, it contains many other factors.
Let’s just summarise the Six Planning Steps in writing which can make it easier for the readers.
1. Know the purpose of the message - what you want from your reader. Is it to inform, enquire, persuade or initiate some sort of action?
2. Know your reader - educational background, knowledge level, mindset and feelings.
3. Choose the ideas to include - based on the reader’s knowledge and need.
4. Get all the facts to back up these ideas for evidence and to convince.
5. Organise in the most effective manner - content and design.
6. Write, revise and have the first draft.
Let’s discuss point number 5: ‘Organise in the most effective manner.’
Along with a logical flow of the content, formatting and design are also important factors for easy readability. You can use some of the following guidelines to make it easier and more appealing.
• Leave enough space for margins White space has a soothing effect on the eyes and improves readability. Use 1.5 line spacing.
• Use a good standard font size. Normally 12 points is considered a standard size for normal text. Titles can be the same size or 14 and should be made bold.
• Use a clear font. Fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman, Verdana and Tahoma are good for hard copies and websites alike.
• Use headings and bulleted lists to organise and highlight information according to the topic. These will help your reader to focus and find information easily. Moreover, the white space in the bulleted list helps in easy readability.
• Ensure consistency in the style of a list. Use a period in the bulleted list if it’s a full sentence. Otherwise, you can leave it open. Use sentence case or title case.
• Use tables and illustrations where needed.
• Use images and other visuals to add to your message.
• Avoid background images behind text. This makes it hard to read.
• If you are presenting financial or other numerical information, consider using relevant and simple graphs, charts or tables.
• Make important points stand out. If you want to stress a point, make the word or sentence bold. Never underline. Underlining makes it look untidy and harder to read. Don’t use words in all block capitals to highlight important points. It gives the look as if YOU ARE SHOUTING!
• As discussed earlier each paragraph should have one idea. But if that idea needs more than eight sentences, break it into two. Breaking up content into short meaningful paragraphs makes it easier to read and keeps readers engaged. If, and when, needed give headings to the paragraphs. In that case, keep two line spaces between the heading paragraphs.
• Use two or more columns for flyers according to the size of the paper used. It prevents readers from feeling overwhelmed by a big block of text.
After your writing is complete, look at the overall effect. Work on the impression it gives. Keep the document aside for two or more days to review it with a clearer mind.
Prepare a checklist. Make multiple copies of those. Match with the checklist. Proofread your work. It’s always a great idea to request someone to proofread as well.
The necessity of plain language is undeniable. It’s crucial for effective communication in all spheres of life. All businesses, organisations, and governments should adopt the idea of using plain language.
Nowadays, almost all organisations have websites. Using plain language is also important in creating attractive and effective websites. Poor online experiences for readers can cost companies millions.
Plain language is also applicable for translators.
Kate Murphy, plain-language editor for Translators without Borders (TWB) sees a connection between International Translators Day and International Plain Language Day. According to her Plain language is relevant from the writer’s first draft to the translator’s last review.
Plain language concepts are relevant to anyone who works with words. To make your writing accessible to all, it’s essential for a writer or translator to incorporate plain language. Naturally, if both practise plain language the readers will have a much clearer view of the translated material. Thus close collaboration between writers and translators in using plain language indeed will be helpful.
Complex, poorly written and mistake-filled documents question your intelligence and damage the credibility of your organisation. Putting plain English principles into practice will help you to build trust and be able to connect with more readers.
Plain language is not only about editing or revision, it’s a combined process to produce an error-free, logically flowing effective document for the readers.
Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity: Charles Mingus
The time is now for you to start advocating and using plain language too.
Are you ready?
[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh]
1. Kate Murphy, Eight plain language tips for writers and translators on International Plain Language Day, Translators Without Borders, October 13, 2020.