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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:

US Government:

Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN):

There are also numerous plain language guides developed by professionals:

What really works?

Regardless of which guidelines you use, what the project focus is, or how much time is available, plain language professionals always put their audience first.

As Christa Bedwin states in her book, if our audience doesn’t understand what we’ve presented, then we didn’t communicate effectively. Read her Forum blog The Joys of Teaching Engineers to Write to see how plain language can effectively cross borders, professions, and topics. It knows no boundaries. It is a great way to enhance your skills, scope, and services.

Dr Neil James, Australia’s Plain English Foundation Executive Director and The Mandarin contributor, sees plain language as a critical component to improving organizational communications and improving organizations. It is important to realize you are going to change how people communicate and be prepared to guide them through that change.

Janice (Ginny) Redish, plain language consultant, trainer, and author, has put her energy into clear online content. Her book, Letting Go of Words, captures the essence of how “less is more,” especially for online content.

Start by getting a sense of what plain language is, and develop the skills and tools to strengthen your ability to offer this service.

What key services can I offer my clients?

After over 20 years of offering plain language writing and editing, consulting, and training services, I have found training to be critical to a project’s success. Plain language is still new to many organizations, so empowering people with the knowledge and skills to do it well will make a big difference.

Training—whether it’s a one-on-one coaching session, a management presentation, or a team workshop—can impact the long-term success of a project. After all, in many situations you are introducing a cultural change. If you are not a trainer, find one who knows plain language and you can trust as a colleague. It’s important for you to get training too.

My passion about plain language, the right of readers to have understandable information and the right of writers to have the skills to create clear communications, has taken me down a career path more interesting than I could have imagined. I’ve seen the benefits for everyone involved, and I am committed to guiding others on their plain language journey.

Kate Harrison Whiteside, owner of Key Advice and Services and the, is a communication consultant and trainer specializing in plain language (clear communication). She helps people build stronger connections with clients—internal and external.

Kate’s expertise, gained doing plain language consulting in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe, is in writing and editing, training and coaching, and project management. She has worked with government, business, organizations, nonprofits, and educational institutions. She uses her journalism, business marketing, and adult education background to support all her work.

Kate, along with Cheryl Stephens, founded what is now the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN); International Plain Language Day October 13; organized and spoke at numerous PLAIN conferences; and coauthored a number of books through Plain Language Wizardry.

Kate is passionate about sharing her knowledge to help others communicate better. When she is not connected to her computer, she’s out connecting with nature—hiking, biking, and snowshoeing.

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