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Plain Language: Rules and Tips for Creating Understandable Texts

Every writer worth his or her salt knows that the more readable a text is, the more work has gone into its creation. After all, writing something that readers can follow with ease is anything but easy. There’s an art to making complex relationships as understandable as possible. Since reading from a screen is more taxing than from paper, this is particularly important in texts that appear online. Things are thus trending toward more simplified forms of expression that help readers comprehend such content. In this article, we’ll explain what “plain language” is and the rules you should follow to achieve it. 

What is “plain language”? 

During your time at school, you most likely crossed paths with a teacher who told you to write with as much variety as possible: lots of adjectives, different sentence structures, no repetitions of the same words, and so on. This runs somewhat counter to the words of Cicero – a rather well-known wordsmith of his day – who once said, “When you wish to instruct, be brief.” 

When writing outside of the classroom, might we suggest trusting a famous Roman orator rather than your well-meaning English teacher? In most cases, your target audience will consist of average Joes and Janes who mainly want information in short order. Creative narrative landscapes and acrobatic prose are all well and good in literature, but not in website content, newsletters, or manuals. If you want your writing to be easily understood, leave out the technical jargon and legalese, as well. 

Plain language is meant to give readers all the information they need as quickly and simply as possible. Meanwhile, there’s an even clearer form of expression known as “simple language”. Both of these language concepts originated in the plain language movement, which emerged in the United States in the late 1960s. At that time, many U.S. citizens had had enough of the convoluted ways in which governmental agencies communicated and began demanding more straightforward information. 

The difference between simple language and plain language 

In German, the two language concepts differ in terms of their respective target groups. Simple language (leichte Sprache) is specifically geared toward people who face challenges learning – due to difficulties in reading, dementia, or a simple lack of German language skills, for example. To make things as understandable as possible for these readers, you have to boil your information down to what’s essential. 

Unlike plain language, simple language is established in German law. This means that the country’s federal authorities are required to provide their information in simple language to ensure barrier-free communication. In doing so, they follow a defined set of rules (link in German). 

Plain language, meanwhile, is designed for a much larger segment of the population. Germany is home to an increasing number of people who seldom read, or mainly read short texts. It’s often difficult for these readers to understand complicated material.  

Plain-language texts are more complex than those written in simple language, but still try to avoid overwhelming the reader. In contrast to simple language, there are no official rules on plain language in Germany. It is based on a number of basic principles that are meant to improve text comprehension. 

Guidelines for plain language 

Plain language is meant to reflect the everyday language used by the target group in question. Instead of imitating the language of your readers, you need to write so they can follow what you mean without issue. If your target audience consists of specialists, you don’t have to worry about including some technical terms. Texts intended for laypersons, on the other hand, should avoid that type of jargon. 

Here are some more tips on how to simplify your texts using plain language. 

1. Word choice and sentence structure 

  • Avoid using foreign-language words and other uncommon terms. If there’s no way around them, explain what they mean. 

  • Keep the structure of your sentences simple. Try not to use parentheses or subordinate clauses. Having more than two commas in a sentence tells the reader that things are getting complicated. 

  • Use adjectives sparingly. They’re often unnecessary or not all that objective. In most cases, omitting them won’t obscure the message of your text. 

  • Try to stick with verbs. Steer clear of substantivizations and compound nouns. When compounds are necessary, use hyphens to make sure their meaning is clear. Consider the difference between “a study on 10-year-old children” and “a study on 10 year-old children”, for instance.  

  • Avoid modal verbs like should, could, and would. 

  • Limit each sentence to 14 words. You can formulate sentences of varying length without going over that number. 

  • Be wary of the passive voice and negation. Address your readers using positive, straightforward sentences.  
    Ambiguous: Going for a walk after 8:00 p.m. is not prohibited.  
    Clear: You may go for a walk after 8:00 p.m. 

2. Clarity of content 

  • Give your text a logical structure. Answer the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why), leave out non-essential information, and make sure your sentences have a coherent flow. 

  • One thought per sentence; one idea per paragraph. This guideline promotes comprehension and helps readers identify important passages when skimming a text. 

  • Write with purpose. It might sound banal, but it’s important to use the same terms for the same things and different terms for different things. Avoid synonyms – and metaphors, for that matter. 

  • Make sure your text doesn’t require prior knowledge. Give your readers all the information they need to understand your message. 

  • Write in a descriptive way. Using clear language will make your text more understandable. Opt for “processor” instead of “CPU”, for instance, and choose examples that speak to your readers’ experience. 

  • Repeat key information. This will make it more likely to register with your audience. 

  • Be aware of things that often frustrate readers. These include technical or financial jargon, legalese, hipster slang, and neologisms in general. 

3. The visual aspect 

  • Structure your writing. Avoid monolithic blocks of text by using short paragraphs interspersed with informative subheadings and structured lists. 

  • Make use of illustrations. Present your information using vivid and intuitive diagrams, timelines, pictograms, and other such elements. 

  • Charts are also great for making comparisons or listing figures. 

 

Plain language in multilingual texts 

Even native speakers often find it hard to forgo their usual style of writing in order to produce simpler texts. When it comes to foreign languages, you’re definitely better off calling in a professional – one who can boil your content down to its core messages and express them as clearly as possible in the target language. At Lexsys, our experts are familiar with all the nuances that go into creating texts for various target groups in international markets. They know what it takes to reach out to your intended audience with a message that can’t be missed. 

If you need help formulating a text in plain English (or a variety of other languages), why not get in touch with us? Our multilingual copywriters and -editors have extensive experience in creating and revising content for a wide range of readerships. We’d be happy to assist you in making your texts fully accessible to people in other countries. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


About the Author

Carl Isaac

Unit Director Technical Documentation

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