Plain Language makes content accessible to all

As the Communications team works to improve the accessibility of different features of our website, you can help by making sure any content you add follows plain language principles.

What is Plain Language?

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

International Plain Language Federation

What Plain Language is not:

Plain language is not boring. And it’s not dumbing down. Plain language respects readers’ time, energy and reading levels.

Writing in plain language can sometimes be more difficult than using jargon or complex phrases.

For a good writer, it is very possible to skillfully use creative, engaging and interesting language while still making your writing easy to read and understand.

Experts are rarely insulted by something that is clear enough for beginners.

Steve Krug

Why is Plain Language important?

Research has found that people read online content differently from print or other media.

We no longer read in a linear, detailed way. We scan and scroll around a page, looking for the information we want. We pick out key words and phrases, and if we don’t find them, we head back to Google to try another webpage. We also have to navigate around email signup pop-up boxes, autoplay videos and blinking banner ads.

No wonder we get frustrated when we can’t find what we want right away!

Why do we read online content differently?

We want instant gratification.

Do you get impatient when a webpage takes too long to load?

We’ve become used to having what we want at lightning speed. This means our content has to get to the point immediately.

Our attention spans are shorter.

When you’re waiting in a line, do you often reach for your phone?

According to a study from Microsoft, people these days generally lose concentration after eight seconds, a side effect of our phone-heavy lifestyles. This means we must relay important information to the reader quickly and concisely.

It’s harder for us to concentrate.

Is your day filled with constant interruptions?

We check our phones every 12 minutes. These distractions have eroded our ability to concentrate. This means we must use very clear, easily-scanned writing.

We find reading on a screen physically harder than reading on paper.

Do you find yourself tired after a long day at your computer?

We usually blink about 18 times a minute. When we look at digital devices, we blink about half as often, leading to eyestrain. This means we must lay out our content in a way that requires the least effort to read.

There is an incredible amount of information available online, all at once.

Are you overwhelmed by the amount of information you can access?

There have been several studies on reading comprehension in the digital age. Analysis points to readers skimming more and retaining less when they read onscreen. This means we must make it easy for users to find and absorb our content.

What does this mean for how we write for webpages?

People are action-oriented. They have tasks they want to perform. So, good writing for the web means we must make sure our content is easy to scan, presents information concisely, and gives users a clear path to completing the tasks they have set out to do.

Plain language principles
Things to keep in mind: audience, jargon and tone
Examples of plain language
Helpful tools for clear writing