Introduction to Plain Language: Say It Simply
December 2, 2019
Plain Language: Say it simply with Sam Snoop.
I’m Sam Snoop the Plain Language Slueth. And this is my sidekick, Maggie the Magnifying
Glass. Maggie and I are working the plain language caper. Our job is to smoke out writing
that is too tough to read. Then we fix it. Make it simpler. What is plain language? Think
about what you say when you are just yacking with your family, friends, and the gang at
the office. How do you talk? Simply, right? That’s because you want people to understand
you. But do you write that way? Imagine two baseball buddies sitting at home watching
the Minnesota Twins on TV. One’s Peter Plainspoken the other is Gloria Gobbeltygook. Peter steps
away for a minute and misses a play. When he comes back he wants to know what happened.
Wouldn’t you? Peter: “So what did Mauer do?” Gloria: “I have received your inquiry and
am prepared to respond. According to the official rule section 423.098 subdivision 379.222 paragraph
b a run can be scored by the batter when said batter makes contact with the baseball with
his bat. Several situations may then ensue which allow the batter to touch all bases
consecutively without having recorded an out. In situation 1A. the ball makes contact with
the bat and is then propelled to a point where…” Peter: “So he hit a home run?! Is that what
you are saying?” Gloria: “The response to the oral communication received by you and
dated May 1, 2013 has resulted in an amended affirmative response to the initial interrogatory
received from the above reference…” Peter: “Does that mean yes?” Gloria: “According to
the rules section 423.625 the correct answer…” Did you understand what Gloria was saying?
Even if you did, why would you want to? Who’s got the time to be a translator? It’s the
same thing with writing, whether it’s a letter, e-mail, website report, anything else. Make
it something your readers understand the first time they read it. That means use common terms,
keep your message clear, and make it easy to understand, only write what’s needed, be
direct. Think of some of the great plain language messages of all time. “Ask not what your country
can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” “I’ll be back.” “Where’s the beef?”
Yeah, these messages stick because they are so simple. We hardly have to think at all
to know what they mean. Got that? Now, check this out. “It was freed from the retrosternal
aspect of my chest wall and an endarterectomy to the LAD was performed. Left anterior descending
artery.” What a mouthful. Unless you’re a doctor, there is no way you can figure out
what’s going on here. Get the picture? When your readers don’t understand, they get confused.
It also wastes time and resources. Both theirs and yours. We don’t want that. That’s why
Maggie and I are on a plain language mission and all Minnesota state government agencies.
And when you work on your next letter, fact sheet, or e-mail, take these five steps: plan,
organize, write, edit, review. Plan before you write. Talk about what you’re writing
with communications, legal, and subject matter experts. Talk about the contents purpose.
Know your reader, their situation, and how they will receive this information. Organize
the information so it’s easy to understand. Select the right (and right amount of) content.
Arrange the information logically and format it for easy use. Write the way you speak.
Use everyday language. Use active voice. Keep sentences short. Edit with your reader in
mind. What questions will they have? What do they need to know now? Would a list or
table make something easier to understand? Review what you’ve written. If you can, put
your document down for a while and come back to it for a fresh look. Try reading it to
a friend, or your neighbor in the next cubicle. Test it with real users. That’s the power
of plain language. Say it simply.