3. Keys to effective writing

The point of plain language writing is to help your reader find, understand, and use the information they need. Here are a few ways you can do that most effectively.

Organize information in a way that makes sense to the reader

Usually, you should lead with the information that is most important to your readers. If you have to include other information that is not as important or applicable to your reader, it should go later in the document. Put yourself in the place of your readers: if you were in their situation, what would you want to know first?

Remember that each paragraph should be organized around one main idea (or several linked ideas). When you want to write about another idea, or when you are writing about complicated information, start a new paragraph.

Use headings and other tools to help your reader find information

Use section headings to break up text and provide a quick reference for readers to skim information for what they need. In a longer document, include a table of contents. Use bullet lists instead of long lists in a paragraph.

Use a conversational tone and address the reader directly

Usually, there is no good reason to use a formal tone with your readers. Your writing will be clearer and more understandable if your sentences sound good when they are spoken out loud. Unless you have a very good reason for writing formally, use a conversational tone when communicating to readers.

To be clear: the opposite of formal is not “chatty, full of slang and inappropriate language.” It is informal and conversational. One example of informal style is starting sentences with and, but, or, so. Many people were taught that this is wrong, but it is not—it is simply informal. It is fine in informal writing and can be helpful in shortening sentences.

Using a conversational tone means you should address your reader directly and use words like you, your, we, and our. If your document is intended for students, do not use the third person word students. Write you.

For example, this paragraph from a course syllabus uses the third person:

Students who require academic accommodations as a result of a disability should advise both the instructor and Accessibility Services. Students requiring support should familiarize themselves with the Accommodations for Students with Disabilities policy.

The audience for a course syllabus is primarily students. There is no need to address them in third person. A plain language approach would re-word the paragraph to address the reader:

If you need academic accommodations because of a disability, you should tell your instructor and Accessibility Services. You should also read the Accommodations for Students with Disabilities policy.

 

Notice that this re-worded paragraph also replaces the words require with need, advise with tell, and familiarize with read. Section 5 of this booklet discusses a plain language approach to word choice.

Even though contractions like don’t, won’t, it’s, and you’re are informal, and can create a friendly tone, they can also be difficult for readers whose first language is not English. Depending on your audience, you may want to avoid contractions.

Keep it positive

Negative wording can come across as hostile and uninviting. Whenever possible, use positive rather than negative wording. For example, instead of telling people what they will not be able to do if they do not complete a certain action, tell them what they will be able to do if they complete the action successfully:

NEGATIVE

If you fail to submit the documentation by April 1, you will not be considered for the program.

positive

You must submit the documentation by April 1 to be considered for the program.

It is appropriate to use negative wording sometimes: for example, to provide warnings or emphasize danger. Just use it sparingly. Make it a conscious choice with a clear rationale.

Keep it concrete, not abstract, and use examples that relate to your readers’ experience

It is better to make abstract concepts as concrete as possible.

(Concrete words refer to physical things that we can perceive with our senses.) If you do have to refer to philosophical or abstract concepts in a plain language document, try to connect these ideas to something physical immediately afterwards. Examples are a good way to illustrate your point.

Choose examples that relate to your readers’ experience and show how the topic could apply to them.

 

In the interactivity below, drag the example to the correct effective writing concept.

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