Plain language tips and tricks for technical writing
5/14/2021 3:20:22 PM
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
Help readers see themselves in the text. Use words like I, me, we, our, ours, you, your.
Use personal pronouns or name the person
Use active voice, not passive:
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:
More examples of ways to Use simple words and phrases can be found on the plainlanguage.gov website.
Make information stand out. Use:
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.
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.
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.