Plain Language: Beyond the Dust
The term plain language brings with it dust and dryness, the kind that is often accompanied by institutes and organizations who advocate for it. Governments adopt it. Legal entities and banks decry its benefits. Many of us are no doubt lead us to the conclusion that plain language is dull and best left for those forced to write practical policy and procedures, and other documents readers only read out of duress.
But I aim to argue this point: plain language doesn’t mean boring language.
Plain language is not flowery, but nor is it empty of flourishes. Plain language aims to use words with impact and descriptions with clarity to fully communicate a subject.
It isn’t about using the simplest word; it’s about using the best word for your audience.
Plain language is a skill not only for the business writer but also for the creative writer. It allows us to play with word choices while searching for the best language for our readers and our purpose. This creates clarity and reduces confusion.
Consider its advocates: writers from Chaucer to Hawthorne, from Shakespeare to Orwell. They all advocate for simplicity and clarity in writing.
Mark Twain once wrote, “Anybody can have ideas—the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”
The challenge of getting those ideas into a single, glittering paragraph is hard work.
Perhaps this is more challenging than one might think. Philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “The letter I have written today is longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter.” Plain writing requires a clear, tight mandate with no wandering sidelines. To pare down a complex subject to its essential meaning, you need to fully understand it, whether that subject is a policy, procedure, or a fictional character’s intentions.
So no. I don’t believe that plain language is boring writing; I believe it’s good writing.
During our workshop on September 12, we will discuss the practical tips for writing plain language, but we will also discuss how those tips are enacted with flexibility. This workshop will not be about learning a step-by-step procedure to plain language, but rather a road map with many paths to a final destination depending on who you are writing to and why you are writing.