Plain English for People Who Don't Read (For Everybody)



How to write in plain English for people who don't read?


"On the average webpage, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely."- Jakob Nielsen.

How well do we know our readers?


You must know plenty of things about your audience, and what you learn depends on your research. But whether you did your research or not, here are 3 facts that are valid for most of the audience:


Fact 1: Almost no one reads

Fact 2: People scan content most of the time

Fact 3: The average reader reads just enough to get by, but not more


How can we direct people who do not want to read? We need to be smart in writing and use this technique to increase our chances. And creative writing is not the solution here.

We learn from user experience research; the answer is Plain language.

What is plain language?


"Plain language is communication that your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it."


Plain language helps people understand more. Anyone targeting a broader or international audience should be concerned and need to be more careful with your language. Plain language is beneficial for those who don't pay attention and is especially great for a digital copy.


In NNgroup.com usability study with experts in the field found that even very well-educated people want information that is short and easy to read, just like everyone else.


Nobody ever said:

"This is too easy to read" - Nobody ever

Even professionals want clear, concise information that doesn't use complicated words or jargon. Plain language is suitable for both people and businesses. Usually, it is easy and informal. Assume all adults have a reading age of 18 or less (grade level 13 or less)


Choose your words carefully.

Here are principles of plain language:

  1. Use words that are familiar to readers

  2. Avoid hidden verbs and noun strings

  3. Don't use expressions or idioms

  4. Jargon should be avoided

  5. Minimize abbreviations

  6. Be concise


Use words that are familiar to readers


One word can mean different things to different people. Because each of us thinks in another way. A map in our brain shows how often or recently we have used the exact word. This map is based on how often or how recently we have used the word.

So, the most important thing to do is to use simple words every day. When people use complicated words, they think they look smarter. But, in fact, science shows that the opposite is accurate, and they don't look smarter at all.

  • afford an opportunity > let allow

  • accelerate > speed up

  • alternatively > or

  • contemplate > think about

  • accordingly > so

And more - see the following article to see all words you can avoid in your writing if you want to write in plain language.


Avoid expressions and idioms


Avoid expressions and idioms, especially when talking to an international audience. But even people from one country might have different perceptions of that expression.


This one is a fascinating one. Im Slovakian and living in the Netherlands. So often in the job posting, I see dutch expressions which are just confusing and definitely don't make a reader more engaged. Sometimes it causes an author to look dumb. So in my last 6 years here, here are a few expressions I have seen and heard that blew my mind:


  • Let's fall with the door into the house. (Meaning: Let's get straight to the point.)

  • You'll sit with your mouth full of teeth. (Meaning: You will be speechless.)

  • Now you finished reading, and your wooden shoe is breaking (Meaning: Now you finished reading, and you are totally amazed.)

  • With our learning program, you will have it under the knee. (Meaning: With our learning program, you will master it.)

  • Apply today; it's a whistle of a cent. (Meaning: Apply today, can be done with minimal effort.)

Even native English expressions can be tricky and confusing to non-native speakers. Simple solution, try to avoid them.


Avoid jargon


This one is maybe the trickiest of all here. Jargons are unique words or expressions used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

I see this often that companies are using their company lingo. For example, they use rare names for products or teams and then put them in a job posting, which a reader does not know what that symbolises.


Or you can often see that companies use overly technical, legal, or other language that a company assumes a reader is familiar with, but mostly the opposite is true. The moment you make the reader not understand that moment, you lose the reader.


Be Concise Means

  • cut down long words

  • reduce sentence length

  • vary sentence length

  • include one point per sentence

  • cut down on your adjectives and adverbs. Remove comments as really, very, great, please, entirely, rather, totally

  • keep "the" and "that" to a minimum

  • adjectives before a noun

  • lookout for repetition and redundant phrases

  • don't make the simple things look impressive

  • use examples, similes, and analogies to improve readers' understanding

  • make your main point accessible (PRIMACY)

  • write in paragraphs

  • write as simple as possible

  • arrange sentences: agent-verb-object to use active voice

  • arrange sentences subject-verb-agent to use the passive voice

  • favor the active voice wherever possible


Final Thoughts

In addition, if you use terms that the reader might not understand, always define them in context and give examples or make analogies. For instance, you should avoid using abbreviations or acronyms because your readers may not know them. Also, if you are writing about a specific topic, you should make sure that you know the terms used in that topic. You should always know what you are talking about and what your audience will understand.


Avoid idioms, clichés, and slang; again, try to be explicit only if you are sure they will get it. Because people can react differently than you are. Ask yourself whether your reader will know this concept. Then, focus on the main point: Ask yourself whether there is a shorter way to say this.


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