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Plain Language

Your language choices will make or break your connection with your readers. Use language that is clear and direct to get your message across.

On the six cards below, learn about how to connect with your readers. 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.

It's all about you and me

Personal pronouns—I, you, we—have a subtle way of connecting the reader and the writer. These pronouns can make your document more conversational, which can help your reader focus on your message rather than your language.

A conversational tone can increase a document's clarity, but it's not always appropriate. When you write something, ask yourself whether personal pronouns would be right for your content.

What's the difference between these two sentences? Which is more compelling to you?

  • Investigators who have additional questions about this funding opportunity should contact the program.
  • Contact us if you have additional questions about this funding opportunity.

More word choice considerations

Choose words that will help your readers.

  • Use positive, not negative, words. Negatives like don't in front of a verb can make some readers stumble.
  • Avoid long strings of nouns. Sentences with several nouns in a row can be difficult to navigate smoothly on the first try.
  • Use inclusive language. Unless your document is about men, don't use only male pronouns (he, his).

The positive verb in the second sentence makes it more straightforward:

  • Don't forget to refill your prescription.
  • Remember to refill your prescription.

Which sentence reads more smoothly?

  • I talked to the medical device sales representative today.
  • I talked to the sales representative for medical devices today.

Activate the power of verbs

You should use the active voice.

  • Active: John hits the ball.
  • Passive: The ball is hit by John.

Which sentence paints a more vivid picture?

Sometimes, people use the passive voice to be evasive:

  • The funds were misplaced.

Who misplaced the funds? As a reader, you might think, "Is the writer trying to hide something from me?"

If you don't want to appear to be hiding something, you should use active voice:

  • The accountant misplaced the funds.

Match your words to your audience

You might be drawn to words that are common in your environment. But are they also common in your audience's environment?

When you have a choice between words—especially when writing for non-specialists—use the common, everyday word.

Which word in each pair has the broadest appeal?

  • Hypertension
  • High blood pressure
  • Use
  • Utilize
  • Disease
  • Malignancy
  • Myocardial infarction
  • Heart attack

Sometimes you have to use a technical term, even when you're writing for non-specialists. In the next section, you can learn how to do this in a reader-friendly way.

Construct your sentences carefully

Direct, simple sentences will help get your point across.

  • Keep it short. The average length of your sentences should be 20 words or fewer.
  • Keep it simple. Cover only one idea per sentence and one theme per paragraph.
  • Take out the padding. Words like very, really, actually, and carefully usually don't serve any purpose.
  • Be direct. Get to the point; don't wander around first.

Consider this sentence:

All states carefully screen each newborn for rare but potentially very deadly conditions at birth, so if there is a baby who has one of these conditions, this screening is really helpful because he or she will be able to get diagnosis and treatment a lot sooner.

That sentence ignores each of the four guidelines on the front of this card. How could you rewrite it to be more readable?

Get the tone right

Make your document something that your audience wants to read. Stop and hear what you're writing from their point of view. Is it:

  • Boring or compelling?
  • Finger-waving or inviting?
  • Condescending or respectful?
  • Forgettable or memorable?

Would somebody in your audience want to read it? Would you?

“It is easy for us to forget the power of words. We use them the way an engineer uses a slide rule or a surgeon uses a scalpel.”

— Jonathan Capehart, Pulitzer Prize winner, The Washington Post, speaking at NIH (2009)

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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