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Communication Arts - The Science of "Plain Language"

"Plain Language" is the art and science of producing attractive and readable documents that can be understood by their intended readers. Plain language writing is a process that considers the needs of the readers, the purpose of the document, the message to be delivered and the constraints upon the writer. Plain language as a method adopts techniques from market research, adult education theory, human ergonomics, usability testing and other fields to create "engineered communications".

Why would you need to hire someone else to do plain language? Plain language requires the skills of a

  • researcher
  • writer or reporter
  • editor
  • educator
  • information designer
  • usability tester

Most organizations do not have these resources on staff. A plain language expert brings skills, training and expertise from each of these areas and more.

Janet Dean, Membership Coordinator of the Plain Language Consultants Network, says, "The people who deliberately apply the "plain language process" can be found in many government offices, in marketing and communications departments in business, and in legal departments and law offices. The key element that distinguishes plain language process from other approaches is the focus on the readers. Plain language process includes advance audience research and post-production document evaluation by the user and it may involve collaborative writing with sample audience members."

Plain language consultants handle specific communications projects when audience-comprehension is considered especially important. Some specialize in different fields such as health or law while some concentrate on user-testing, project management, or online applications. PLCN members also help organizations redesign communication practices to better serve the organization's mandate and meet the needs of the public, clients, and staff.

Cheryl Stephens, a lawyer by training and the PLCN General Co-ordinator, advises that there is no standard qualification for plain language consultants so potential employers should check the resumes and references of those who claim a plain language expertise. She says, "It is important to ask, in your request for proposals, for a description of the process the consultant recommends and the time frame to reach the final product."

Ensure that your consultant will work with you to become clear on these questions:

  • What is your reason for developing the materials and what do you hope to accomplish with them
  • Who is your target audience and what are their abilities, interests, and attitudes
  • How will you evaluate the success of the final product or test comprehension
  • What is your perspective or point of view on the issue your are presenting
  • What formats can you use and why are your choices limited
  • What are your budget and time constraints
  • What skills and resources will be needed for the project

The next time you are launching a communication project, consider adding a plain language consultant to your project.

Visit the Plain Language Consultants Network on the Internet at, send email to or contact Stephens and Dean's Plain Language Center in British Columbia at 604-5215457 or fax 604-521-8066.

What do you seek from plain language?

Assess a document by asking these questions:

Will the reader refer to the document?

  • Is it attractive
  • Is it legible
  • Does it appear interesting
  • Does it appear relevant to the reader's needs

Will the reader take the time to read the document?

  • Is the information easily accessible
  • Is it well organized and understandable
  • Is it clear what action is expected of the reader

Can the reader understand the language and concepts?

  • Is it clear
  • Is it concrete
  • Can the reader relate to the content
  • Does it answer the reader's questions
  • Is there too much or too little information