We’ve all been there. You reach the end of an article and have to read it again to comprehend it. Or you get lost in a sentence that has such an alphabet soup of acronyms and technical terms that you wonder if Chef Boyardee wrote it.
Web readers often go to sites to find answers to questions quickly and efficiently, and one of the best ways to help your readers find what they’re looking for is to make web content readable and understandable. That’s where the principles of using plain language come into play.
The goal of plain language is simple: the meaning of what you write should be clear to someone the first time they read it, and readers should be able to easily find what they’re looking for.
Why is plain language important?
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to use plain language in their communications. The law describes plain language as “writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.”
Government agency or not, it’s a good idea for most web writing. Plain language means there’s less of a chance that your readers will misunderstand what you write.
Explaining things clearly on your website helps readers find what they need and can also help reduce the number of questions that they need to reach out with. It’s especially useful when conveying information that’s unfamiliar to a reader or critical for their understanding.
Another thing to keep in mind: The average reading level of an American is that of a seventh or eighth-grader, according to the Center for Plain Language. If you’re shooting to be understandable to a wide audience, that’s a good benchmark.
How do you start? Keep your audience first.
Knowing your audience is key to writing clearly. So is keeping them at the center of everything you write. Is your site serving industry experts or the average person? Adults or students? Or some combination? Whatever your audience, write at a level they will understand and in a format that will reach them well. Keep in mind not just what they may know, but also what they may not.
Writing in a format that will resonate with your audience goes beyond sentence structure to include page structure, too. As great as your subject matter may be, web readers are skimmers. That means it’s important to write for how people approach the web.
Some tips include:
- Using a scannable layout that incorporates a lot of white space and breaks content down into clear, concise sections with headings.
- Phrasing headings as questions that readers may ask.
- Writing in short paragraphs rather than long, dense blocks of text.
- Incorporating numbered or bulleted lists (like this one!) to break down ideas simply.
How do you write clearly? Here are some tips.
Industries have all sorts of technical words and abbreviations that insiders use, but using them in writing for average readers can make it dense. It’s helpful to avoid jargon and to write out what acronyms mean the first time you use them.
Here are a few more tips for writing clearly:
- Use short, strong sentences. Aim for fewer than 20 words.
- Put each fact or idea into its own sentence.
- Keep sentences in the active voice, rather than the passive voice.
- Eliminate unnecessary words.
- Write conversationally. Don’t use a big word when a small one will do. Instead of “implement” or “utilize,” try “use.” Instead of “finance” or “remunerate,” try “pay.”
- Speak directly to the reader, using pronouns like “you” and “your.”
How do I check my content’s readability?
There are plenty of ways you can assess your writing. One useful measurement is the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. It uses a grading scale of zero to 100 based on the number of words, sentences, and syllables in a piece of writing. Each of those scores corresponds with a grade range, from fifth grade to a professional. A good benchmark is the eighth-grade level, a score between 70 and 60. That’s considered “plain English.”
There are a variety of tools online that will check the Flesch-Kincaid level. I used an extension for Google Docs called WriteClearly to test this post before publication, and it scores at a fifth-grade reading level.
Finally, “plain” language doesn’t have to mean “boring” language. You might find the opposite – that it makes your writing more lively. Let your personality shine.
For more tips on how to write in plain language, check out the U.S. General Services Administration’s plain language website.
Work With a Team of Experienced Content Writers
If you’re looking for help to make your web content more accessible to readers, Webspec’s friendly team of digital experts can do just that. Contact us today to get started!