Plain Language Is the Editor’s Key to Reaching Readers

Why do editors need plain language skills?

Plain language, the process of ensuring information meets readers’ needs, is quickly becoming a top skill for freelance writers and editors. Our clients are faced with increased competition and the need to stand out. Plain language benefits for editors include clarity checklists for writing, ways to strengthen the connection between content and clients, and design guidelines for readability. Benefits for your clients include being more effective and efficient at communicating, solving their clients’ problems quickly, and improving staff skills. Words take time, and time is money. So, where do you begin?

What is plain language?

It is important to understand what plain language is, where to fit it into your services, and how you can promote it to your clients. You may be confronted with the question “What is plain language?” Plain language, or clear communication, is the process of creating print information or online content that meets readers’ needs. We know that organizations struggle to get and keep a client’s attention in today’s competitive marketplace. Following the plain language process helps ensure clients can

  • quickly find the information they want,

  • clearly understand the message, and

  • easily take the actions needed.

This works for both print and online content. Without meeting these three goals, information does not meet the basic plain language guidelines. How do your communication projects measure up?

How does the plain language process work?

It is the process that makes plain language stand out from other writing strategies. It’s why governments, the health care field, and astute organizations embrace it. The biggest impact comes from involving the audience throughout the process, to get their feedback, to listen to their needs, and to give them what they want. As Joel Solomon, Amazon Content Strategist, said in his video Four Principles of Creating Helpful Content, “you answer the question asked.”

Start by clarifying and committing to the process, which includes building a strong base around the following:

  1. assessing your reading audience’s profile, needs, and preferences;

  2. understanding and documenting why you are writing to them; and

  3. clearly stating the outcomes.

All these happen with conversations before the writing process begins, and during.

What resources do you have to help implement plain language services?

What plain language can I access?

Writers and editors have many professional resources to guide their decisions. In America, the popular choices are the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook. In the United Kingdom, many turn to the Oxford Style Manual or the Cambridge Editorial Style Guide . Australian writers and editors may use government or industry guidelines. Many use a combination.

Plain language style guides developed in the last few years, many available for free online, are a necessity for today’s editors. Here are some key online links:

Canadian Government: