What is plain language? (Part One: Elements of the text)

multiple perspectives wallOne of the comments to How Do Your Sell Plain Language to Your Manager? insisted that a software program called StyleWriter is the key to management support for more successful writing in the workplace. I want to respond to that recommendation. But I realized that the commenter and I understand “plain language” differently. So I’m going to do a series of posts describing how I understand the concept first. (Note: this post mentions software tools like StyleWriter but is not about those tools.)

Perhaps the most obvious way to define plain language is to focus on the words a writer chooses. For instance, a common proscription from those interested in better workplace writing is for writers to avoid jargon. Jargon is a word with a highly specialized or technical meaning. Like 401(k), an investment plan established by employers to which eligible employees may make salary contributions on a pre- or post-tax basis. (Read more on investopedia.) There are other aspects of style that might be implicated in plain language as described in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part IV of Revising Professional Writing (RPW):

But style alone cannot explain why the email announcement about employees’ pension plan I’ve included below fails as a plain language document.

Software tools can identify many aspects of style that might be revised to achieve more plain language in a document. However, revising to achieve more conciseness in the first sentence and to eliminate unneeded passive verb voice in the second sentence won’t be enough to convert the email announcement into plain language.  (I don’t think the original includes any jargon.)

Other textual elements like organization have to be considered in creating plain language documents.  For many documents, the bottom line message may be presented in effective style but be placed in the middle or at the end of the document, which means it’s buried. I’m not going to categorize any document with a buried bottom line as achieving plain language no matter how plain the style is!  The areas of organization that contribute most to the lack of plain language in the original email announcement are paragraph unity and format. The initial paragraph is quite long and is not tightly constrained to a single, manageable topic identified with a topic sentence at the beginning. In addition, the format of that initial paragraph in one big block of text does nothing to make it easy for readers to get the document’s message.

All of the aspects of organization that might be implicated in plain language appear in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part III of RPW:

While I haven’t reviewed StyleWriter yet, in general, editing software tools are more effective at identifying style issues (which operate at the word- and sentence-level of text) than organization problems (which operate beyond the level of individual sentences).

Consider the revised email announcement, which exemplifies a move toward plain language.

One of the primary differences between this revised and the original versions of the document relate to content development, specifically to the use of a table to display the  example of how the new pension plan works. All of the aspects of content development that might be implicated in plain language appear in my three video tutorials based on chapters in Part II of RPW:

I could continue by talking about the influence of mechanics (e.g., Part V of RPW on punctuation, pronoun reference, etc.) on how plain the meaning of a document is. But the point is that a pro manages all elements of text, including organization and content, to achieve plain language — not just style. Many experts on plain language understand it as the result of all elements of the text: Joseph Kimble does so in his most recent book; Cheryl Stephens does on her website; and Beth Mazur did in her STC article more than a decade ago. Beware of those who understand plain language as writing style. They make pronouncements based on only a fraction of the elephant!

Remember. This is only part one of my definition. More coming soon on the importance of the rhetorical context beyond the text when defining plain language . . .

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