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Plain Language

Plain language begins long before you put pen to paper — or keystroke to keyboard. Start by researching your topic, understanding your audience, and planning and organizing how you will present your information.

On the six cards below, learn about what to do before you start writing. You can flip the cards over to see more, too. The navigation bar above will stay with you, and you can click on it at any time to move to another topic.

Who needs plain language?

We all do! From language learners to advanced readers, everyone benefits from plain language.

Plain language is one element of clear communication. It means you are communicating with your audience in a way that's understandable and direct.

Flip to see how plain language can be as vivid and compelling as any other type of language.

“Science has always been a marathon, not a 100-yard dash.”

— Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the National Institutes of Health

Key questions—part 1

Before you hit your first key, think about what you're writing and about who will read it.

Answer these two questions:

  1. Who is my audience? (or, Who are my audiences?)
  2. What is my purpose?

Your answers will be different depending on what you're writing. Flip the card for some things to consider.

Be specific. There is no such thing as "the general public." The audience for your "general public" website might be, for example, patients, worried parents, health educators, people with limited English skills, or ___________ [you fill in the blank!].

Is your purpose "to inform the reader"? Think again. Most informative writing is actually meant to be persuasive, too. For example, besides informing your readers about their risk for heart disease, do you want to persuade them to get their cholesterol checked?

Key questions—part 2

What do you want your document to accomplish? Answer these two questions before you start writing:

  1. What is my message?
  2. How urgent is my message?

Your message and its urgency will shape your document.

In your message, be concrete and specific. Some examples of concrete, specific messages are:

  • Consider participating in a clinical trial at NIH.
  • Include all five required parts in your Continuing Review submission.

How urgent is it? Is your message more like "Stop, drop, and roll!" or "Pay attention to portion control"?

“If the writer doesn’t understand the subject, the reader won’t, either.”

— Rita Rubin, USA Today, speaking at NIH (2007)

Know your subject before you start to write. If you're confused about something, you won't be able to make it clear to someone else. In fact, the concept will be even more confusing for your audience.

If you understand an idea and explain it well, you will win over your audience. If you don't, the reader may feel as if he or she has missed something. Or, worse, you may make your readers feel as if they are not smart enough to grasp the idea.

Getting to know your audience

To write effectively, you need to know more about your audience. (Flip for more suggestions.)

  • Talk with them. What can you learn from and about your audience?
  • Find examples. Look for written materials that resonate with your audience. What can you learn from them?

More suggestions for getting to know your audience:

  • Immerse yourself. What is your audience watching? Reading? Listening to? Pay attention to the vocabulary and the tone that resonate with them.
  • Determine if there is an intermediary. Does your audience include people with low literacy or speakers of another language? If so, someone may be communicating your information to your audience for you. How can you help prevent transmission errors?

Draw up a blueprint

Just as an architect creates a blueprint before construction begins, you should organize your content before you start to write.

Structure your document around the needs of your audience.

  • List the questions your audience will have.
  • Organize the content around the questions. Each section should answer a question.
  • Be sure your content has a logical flow.

Let's say you're planning to write a brochure about a clinical trial, and your audience is potential participants. You might write down the following questions:

  1. What is the trial about?
  2. Who can participate?
  3. What does participation require?
  4. What are the benefits of participating?
  5. What are the risks of participating?
  6. How do I get more information?

Where would you like to go next?

Ready to start writing in plain language?
Download this checklist to refer to as you write.

This page last reviewed on September 5, 2013

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