Anyone who works with WriterGirl knows we’re big believers in the value of plain language. After all, it’s what helps patients and consumers understand things like how to use medicines wisely and how to make more informed decisions about what health insurance to buy.
But what is plain language? Even as content writers, it’s taken us some time to figure this out. So, we thought we’d share more about plain language and offer some plain language writing techniques and tips.
What is plain language?
Simply put, plain language is plain communication. It’s conversational. But did you know there’s an official plain language definition? The Plain Writing Act of 2010 defines plain language as:
“Writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.”
In healthcare writing, patients are often the intended audience. And best practices for a patient audience include keeping content between a 6th and 8th grade reading level. There are many tools — some free — to help you check reading level.
What plain language isn’t
We now know what plain language is. But there are a few things plain language isn’t.
1. Plain language isn’t “dumbing down”
The idea persists that plain language is all about writing only in short, simplistic sentences that are the written equivalent of one-word, caveman-like grunts. Nowhere near. Plain language makes everything clearer — not dumber.
2. Plain language isn’t only about grade level
Some of the audiences that could benefit most from plain language are folks like doctors and CEOs. It’s safe to say they can handle writing that’s at the grade 13 level and beyond. So why would plain language matter for them? Because they’re busy. They’re in a hurry. They’d rather scan informative subheads, blow through a bullet list of key points and end up with the information they need. Why subject them to dense paragraphs and 10-syllable words that only bog them down and, worse, bury the message? Plain language makes the message more readable — for everyone.
3. Plain language isn’t easy to write
Creating a message — or revising an existing one — using plain language can be hard. It takes effort to dig deep and replace convoluted writing with straightforward content. It takes organization to structure the message for readability. And it takes time to choose the right words, not just the simplest words. Plain language is the way to reach an audience as if we’re talking to them instead of to ourselves. It’s clear communication at its finest. Plain language makes life easier — just not always for the writer.
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Plain language writing techniques
So, how can you up your plain language game? Practice, practice, practice. Try simplifying everything you write.
You can also start to improve your plain language skills with these simple tips:
- Avoid jargon and buzzwords. Medical speak limits your reach. Communicate to a broader audience using words that are easy to understand.
- Keep sentences and paragraphs short. Use fewer words and separate your thoughts. Shortening things may feel too simplistic at first, but your readers will appreciate the effort.
- Make it personal. Use pronouns like “you” to speak directly to your reader.
- Organize content using headers or lists. Make text scannable using design elements like bolded text, bullets, tables or numbered lists.
- Use active voice. Make it clear who’s acting. Instead of saying, “Your exam will be performed by a nurse practitioner,” say, “A nurse practitioner will perform your exam.”
Plain language examples
A plain language definition and tips are nice to have. But plain language examples are even more helpful. Consider this line written for patients preparing for surgery:
After your surgery, you may experience pain or discomfort. You will be prescribed pain medications.
Wouldn’t it be clearer like this?
Pain after surgery is common. Your doctor will prescribe pain medications.
Looking for other plain language examples?
We could go on and on singing the praises of plain language. But that would make this article way too long and needlessly wordy. Something else plain language isn’t.
Plain language infographic
Are you looking for a plain language partner? WriterGirl has 20+ years of experience crafting custom healthcare content using plain language. Reach out to us anytime to learn how we can help you reach goals with your blog, website, physician marketing, internal comms and more.
Editor’s note: This post was updated on March 2, 2022. It was originally published in July 2018. Carol Williams contributed to this post.