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Committing to Plain Language in the New Year

Happy New Year!


At this time of year, many of us are reflecting on our personal and professional goals. If you’re excited to integrate plain language practices into your work, here are some tips to get you started.



Start Simple

Once you learn about plain language, you start seeing opportunities for improvement everywhere. It can feel overwhelming deciding where to start.


You might be tempted to jump in with big projects, like your website or employee handbook. Yes, we want these to use plain language, but they’re large projects that often involve many stakeholders.


Make it easy on yourself by prioritizing new documents directly within your control.


Build up your plain language writing skills with the writing tasks you do every day. Emails, case notes, and work status updates are great opportunities to practice using clear and concise language. Plain language isn’t just for public facing documents - it’s just as important to be intentional when our colleagues are our audience.



Connect With Your Colleagues

As you build your skills and confidence, connect with like-minded colleagues. Find other people at your organization who see the importance of plain language. Create a working group or buddy system to support each other. This might look like providing feedback on each other’s writing, collaborating on larger projects, and identifying priorities for revision.




Create Guidelines for Your Organization

Most organizations have style and branding guidelines. You can take these a step further by adding expectations for plain language.


Remember those like-minded colleagues we mentioned earlier? As a group, you can identify the most common types of writing people do at your organization. Understanding this is a great jumping off point to figure out the support people need.


Here are a few examples of plain language guidelines you could consider:

  • Identify what jargon terms people need to know and create working definitions that staff can use to explain concepts consistently.

  • Choose words that are more familiar to your audience when it doesn't get in the way of the meaning. For example, can you say "before" instead of "prior to" or "change" instead of "modify."

  • Aim for sentences that are a reasonable length, generally 15-20 words. This will help you avoid wordiness and overly complex grammar.

  • When talking about processes, use “you” to speak directly to the audience. Use numbered lists to outline the steps they need to take.



Document the Impact

Data is a powerful tool in helping people understand the impact of plain language. As you make changes, think about how you can show these impacts to others. Ask yourself, “How will these changes make our work more effective?” Whatever the answer is, come up with a plan to collect that information.


Let's say you want to revise a set of instructions on your website. You might document the number of calls for assistance before and after your changes. If you have access to website data, you could see if there's difference in how much time people spend on your site.


Or maybe you want to revise an intake form. You can assess the effectiveness of the changes by allowing people to choose the form they’re most comfortable with and seeing which version is more popular.



Invest In Professional Development

Like any skill, plain language strategies can take time and practice to master. There are many resources on our website and across the web to help you build these skills. We offer learning opportunities that are open to the public as well as customized trainings for organizations of all sizes.


Want to connect with people outside of your organization? Sign up for our Community of Practice group. We meet quarterly to share resources and provide feedback and support. Our next meeting is Thursday, February 16 from 2:30-4:00 pm CST.


And of course, keep your eyes on this blog. We’re here every month with actionable steps you can take to communicate more clearly and effectively with your audience.



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