skip to content
Primary navigation


Don’t bury the headline

Plain language tips and tricks for technical writing

5/14/2021 3:20:22 PM

illustration of two people talking with squiggly lines where their brains are, and in the communication bubble between them

By Kendall Johnson, Minnesota IT Communications, and Jennie Delisi, Office of Accessibility

Plain language helps readers understand communication the first time they read it and know what they need to do next. Quick tips to help you in writing plain language:

  • Use language commonly understood by the public.
  • Write in short and complete sentences.
  • Present information in a format that is easy-to-find and easy-to-understand.
  • Clearly state directions and deadlines to the audience.

Why is plain language important?  

We all experience dense forms, documents, and websites. The information can confuse you and waste your time with complicated jargon and hard-to-find links. With this in mind, Governor Tim Walz reissued an executive order (PDF) to make state government better for the people it serves. The order requires plain language in the Executive Branch for the State of Minnesota. The original executive order 14-07 (PDF) required plain language for communicating with Minnesotans. Some state agencies created additional policies or requirements for plain language. Everyone benefits from this, including Minnesotans with cognitive disabilities. 

Plain language also helps your audience understand the information you share. Imagine that a person with English as a second language needs to read your technical instructions. Or, your audience may skim the information you present. Clearly communicating that information using plain language principles improves the chance that everyone can understand it.

When should it be used?

Use plain language in all communications, whether it is for printed materials or online content. When writing technical or legal documentation, use plain language as much as possible. The executive order does not distinguish between types of communications – it says when communicating with Minnesotans. It is best to check with the subject matter expert when simplifying language to verify the accuracy of the content.

Write to your reader  

Imagine your reader as an actual person. Another term for this is giving them a "persona." Now, customize your writing from that persona's perspective. For example, a persona for a state of Minnesota employee might be something like this: 

  • Meet Jane. She works for the Department of Natural Resources. In her daily work, Jane regularly writes letters and documents in Microsoft Word and uploads them to the division's shared document storage. She uses Outlook to coordinate emails and meetings.
  • Meet Jeremy. They work in a technical cybersecurity role at a state agency. They may not be as familiar with enterprise-wide acronyms. They are also very busy in their role and don’t have a lot of extra time to closely analyze documents.  

If you communicate to either Jane or Jeremy, there are cues in their personas that show how plain language best practices would help strengthen your message. If you are writing a cybersecurity technical document for Jeremy, you may be able to use more technical language. Jeremy may understand your document better if you: 

  • use active language, 
  • make the critical information stand out, and 
  • avoid long sentences. 

Before you share that same cybersecurity information with people who do not work in a technical role, like Jane, you’ll need to make some changes. Use less-technical language that any user could understand. The amount of plain language editing all depends on your audience. 

Plain language best practices also ensure that your content is inclusive for individuals with cognitive disabilities. This includes coworkers and citizens who may have had a stroke, have dyslexia, or have had a brain injury. You may not know that your coworker has one of these disabilities unless they choose to share this information with you.  

Plain Language Writing Tips

People are in a hurry. They skim and scan, looking for fast answers to their questions, so it’s important to quickly get to the point. Help your readers complete their tasks with these writing tips:

Focus on people

Help readers see themselves in the text. Use words like I, me, we, our, ours, you, your.

Use personal pronouns or name the person

  • I am writing in response…
  • Suzy Smith will contact you…
  • You may copy this certificate…

Use active voice, not passive:

  • Passive voice:
    • We will be asking that all homeowners complete Form C.
    • Form C must be completed by all homeowners.
  • Active voice:
    • All homeowners must complete Form C.
    • You must complete Form C.

Use short, simple sentences

People rarely read letters, reports, or web content word by word. Instead, they scan the page. Use the following tips to make sure they get your point:

  • Start with the conclusion.
  • Have one idea per paragraph.
  • Use half the number of words you would use in conventional writing.
  • Avoid unnecessary words:
    • Weak: The purpose of this letter is to tell you that we have accepted your claim.
    • Strong: We accepted your claim.
    • Weak: There are three forms that must be completed.
    • Strong: You must fill out three forms.

Use words readers know

  • Use short and simple words:
    • Stop not cease
    • Before not prior to
    • Get not procure
    • Keep not retain
    • Make sure not ensure
  • Don't use nouns that hide verbs:
    • Deny not denial
    • Maintain not maintenance
    • Assign not assignment
  • Define acronyms
    • Spell out the first use of an acronym, followed by its abbreviation. You can use the abbreviated acronym in the rest of the document.
    • Example:
      • The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) provides technical expertise. In an early release, the MPCA…

More examples of ways to Use simple words and phrases can be found on the website.

Make the text visual

Make information stand out. Use:

  • Bullets for lists.
  • Numbers for steps.
  • Tables for parallel statements.

Format pages to help users

  • Use visually distinct and proper heading structures. 
  • Add white space (using formatting tools) to help users locate information.
  • Group similar information together and use white space around it to present manageable pieces.

Reading levels 

One tool to improve plain language is to check the communication’s reading level. For those using Microsoft Word, you can run a check for readability statistics. It gives you information about the reading level of your text. 

There are different types of reading level tests. One test in the Microsoft tool scores the complexity of the words used. It does this by averaging the number of syllables per word and words per sentence. The other scores how it compares to U.S. school grade levels. Use this as a guide but it is not the only consideration.

Commonly used industry terms may impact a reading level by raising it. Use them with intention. 

Following the tips in this plain language guide will help make the reading level of your text more appropriate for your readers. Reducing reading levels is a skill and will take time to master. Tools like the readability statistics can help you get a baseline to understand how you typically write. Other tools, like the Hemingway App, help while you write. Use the feedback while writing to determine when there are could be simpler ways to present the same information. 

Find Your Plain Language Policy

We recommend you find the policy that applies to you, for your specific workplace. If you don’t have one, start the conversation. This helps everyone work from a common understanding and work towards a common goal: communicating so that all members of your audience can understand. 

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Would you like to learn more about the accessibility work being done by Minnesota IT Services and the State of Minnesota? Once a month we will bring you more tips, articles, and ways to learn more about digital accessibility.

Subscribe Today



back to top