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Plain Language

How should you present a difficult, but vital, topic to non-specialist readers? By structuring your document carefully and defining difficult terms, you can explain anything your readers need to know with courtesy and clarity.

On the six cards below, learn about how to present your information to 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.

Structured for success

A good structure will guide your readers through your document, even if you are covering a difficult topic. Your structure should anticipate and answer questions your readers will have about your topic.

Before you write a document, write down the questions that someone in your target audience would ask about your topic. Use this list of questions to structure your document.

Each sentence should convey one idea, and each paragraph or section should cover one theme. This will help your readers navigate your document. It also will make it easier for you to move sentences and paragraphs around as you edit.

It's all in the details

It's easy to include a lot of detail when you write about a topic you know well. But too many details can dilute your main message and confuse or frustrate your readers.

  • Include only the details your readers need to understand your message.
  • Add exceptions to your message only if they are important—not just because you know them.

“Write it simply, but get it right.”

— Jeff Howe, Wired, speaking at NIH (2010)

Readability vs. readability scales

Readability scores and grade levels are not the be-all and end-all of plain language. The most important consideration is whether your document communicates your message clearly.

Including a definition may increase your score on the Flesch-Kincaid or other readability scale. But, in context, definitions make your material more readable by explaining important concepts to your readers.

(If you've never heard of Flesch-Kincaid, now you know that it's a readability scale—thanks to a brief definition in context.)

First things first

Put your main message at the beginning of your document:

  • State the subject of an email in the subject line.
  • Include an executive summary with a report.
  • State the basic facts about a news item in the first sentence or two of a news release.

If your document is going to be long, an introduction is also helpful.

If you put your most important ideas up front, your readers will be more likely to get the main message.

What does that word mean?

Sometimes you need to use a technical word when you're writing for non-specialists. If a technical word is necessary to your message, use it—but include a definition.

Ways to define a word or acronym:

  • Parenthetically. "Inflammation (heat, swelling, and redness) is caused by the body's protective response to injury or infection." You can also use dashes or commas.
  • In a simple declarative sentence. "When your body is hurt or becomes infected, it has a protective response of heat, swelling, and redness called inflammation."
  • With an extended definition. A complicated concept might require its own paragraph or sidebar. (See "Guiding your readers" for a discussion of extended definitions.)

Guiding your readers

Be sure that you don't simplify an important but difficult word so much that it loses meaning. Instead, lead your audience into understanding with an extended definition.

Let's say you're writing a fact sheet about glucose testing. Your audience needs to understand "A1C test" and "glucose." How can you explain them?

Flip the card to see how the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) did it.

NIDDK explained these complex terms step-by-step, in context:

  • A1C is a diabetes test. It is important for a person who is being diagnosed with diabetes to know this term.
  • The A1C test is a blood test that provides information about a person's average levels of blood glucose, also called blood sugar, over the past 3 months.
  • The A1C test is sometimes called the hemoglobin A1c, HbA1c, or glycohemoglobin test.

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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