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Writing for real people (plain language).

Why do plain language writers emphasize audience research? They do this because once you know who your readers are, you make choices that will make reading easier for them. You make these choices in grammar, vocabulary, and design.

Conversational words

Choose everyday, familiar words in their conversational meanings. Even Aristotle advised writers to use words that are current and ordinary. Use words that explain rather than mask meaning: end, stop, finish, or close instead of terminate. Agree or comply instead of accede to.

In trying to be conversational, don't also try to be trendy and hip. Not everyone follows trends. Remember such slang is an in-language for a certain group of people. Unless that group is your only audience, don't use slang. Don't use proactive or paradigm shift, and don't touch base or interface to optimize the impact.


When you know who you are writing for, you can decide how much jargon is OK. An article about court processes for lawyers might use "list" without further explanation but for the public you would want to indicate that "the family list" is the daily schedule for family court hearings. Would your grandmother be upset by a letter from her lawyer saying, "Your will is now ready, please come in for execution"? Don't use words like stem turns, gender segmentation, functional parameters or marginal cost-pricing unless you're talking to experts in that jargon area.

If you must use some specialized language, give definitions. You can do so unobtrusively. For example, "If you have reasonable grounds (meaning you have good reason) to believe that" or "In economics, arbitrage is the practice of..." Sometimes you need to introduce the readers to terms they will come across in the court system or other institution: "Collusion is when you agree to deceive the court."

Figures of speech

Most writing style guides tell you to make use of analogies, metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech to give your writing life and colour. A problem arises when these reflect cultural experiences that are not common to all your readers. When the movie Like Water for Chocolate was released, most of us required an explanation of the simile. When an information pamphlet for Asian senior citizens on tobacco consumption made a play on the title Sex, Lies and Videotape, none of the target audience had a hint what the joke was about in Smoke, Lies and Videotape.

Cross-cultural issues

The first problem in inter-cultural communication is words that are not known to others. "Don't go off without your toque" will make no sense to a child recently immigrated from Australia. Even simple words may not be understood by people who haven't experienced certain historic events or cultural activities. Consider the wisdom of using the phrase "buried under an avalanche of paper" when writing to someone from Southern India (lacking our experience with mountains of snow).

The second problem is words that carry a different meaning in Canada or in your field of endeavour. For example, the word demise carries all of these meanings: death, lease, convey, transfer, rent, grant and bequeath. And of course some words (contranyms) carry contradictory meanings within themselves which you may have never considered: sanction can indicate either approval or censure.

Brevity and simplicity

Nowadays people are in a hurry. They won't take the time to search a lengthy document for its essential message. Readers scan a long document to decide whether it has relevance to them. If the headings or graphics don't shout "READ ME", the document will be dropped. In order to get read, documents must look interesting, relevant, brief, and easy. Don't go so far with brevity that the document fails to communicate its message, but don't go on any longer than you must. Resist any urge to convert Pope's phrase, "To err is human, to forgive divine" to "To err, whether willfully or through carelessness, is human, whereas, however, to forgive is divine or an approximation thereof".

In addition to keeping the writing clear and succinct, you can use physical space to make the document look simple. This involves design features like headings, visual features like graphics and charts, and comfort factors like adequate white space and large-enough type faces.

Get real: Be clear

Today's readers are not the same as they were years ago. The audience is more diverse and individuals have less time and patience for gobbledygook and unnecessary complexity. And, you must expect that your audience has different needs and expectations than you do. Watch the way you write and seek the common good: clear, easy, readable writing.

This column is written by Plain Language Partners, a consulting firm in Vancouver, BC.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Legal Resource Centre of Alberta Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Feb 1, 1997
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