The Power of Plain Language

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How did your learn to write?

When I was learning to write, just last year, and 17,166 days ago, I remember how I was taught to follow the teacher’s examples on the blackboard. As I copied her, curling my letters around on the page, I thought how beautiful the shape of letters and words are. Much later on, I discovered the dynamic visual presence of Japanese calligraphy, and how their shapes held artistic purity.

But it took me years to find out that the real power and beauty of words was in the clarity and simplicity of plain language. I’m sure most of us would agree that too many things are hidden in complex and dense words, and for the most, they are meant to obfuscate or hide. Just like I did there, by using the word obfuscate, where I could have said confuse; that would have made my statement clearer.

You might also notice the way I use commas in my prose; ah, there I go again, in my text. I began my writing life as a songwriter and poet. Like humans and animals, words, lines and paragraphs, need to breathe. Of course, not all of us breathe the same way; this is our individuality shining through.

But I can’t breathe like other people; so, expect more commas in my text than you would find in most other people’s writing. Even though there is a trend in writing today for less punctuation, I just can’t follow that.

For me, the comma helps me voice my style; this is a part of plain language, for me. Any musician who plays a wind instrument will tell you the importance of getting your breath right; it’s the same with words. You need to find your own style, in your own pattern.

Plain language is made up of clear words, presented as simply as possible on the page or screen

But sometimes the technology doesn’t allow this. WordPress is a wonderful tool, but it does not let me present my text in the best possible manner. Maybe if I wasn’t a paid writer and could afford the pro version, there might be options for me to have my words looking like they do in Microsoft Word. So I cannot achieve all my goals and show you all the components of plain language using this version of WordPress. So what are the components of plain language?

  • To help people to understand
  • To communicate clearly
  • To find information faster

There are other elements, but these are my top three. No matter who I write for, these are the first rules I apply to my text, unless I am writing poetry, where I want to say what something feels like, and not what it is.

Plain language writing will take some time to learn, because most of us have been exposed to so many documents that are full of gobbledygook. What a great word that is; coined in the US in the 1940s, because it gave allusions to the sounds and actions of a turkey, a political turkey in this case.

The need to show off by using words that you think are going to impress people, won’t get you far, because few are going to understand your true meaning. Just like what many business documents are meant to do, the ones that are built to hide their real significance.

If you’ve ever read a terms and conditions (T&C) document, you will know they are written to hide the information you need to understand, take a look at any big companies T&C. Most of them are written in a complex language so companies cannot be held accountable for anything, and if you don’t understand something, how can you question anyone about your rights.

This is one of the many things that plain language can do for you; it can give you back your rights. But most importantly, people will be able to understand you. Isn’t that where most of life’s solutions are found, in people understanding each other.

And, from my favourite writing website, Daily Writing Tips, 20 Strategies for Writing in Plain Language, by Mark Nichol.

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

5 Comments

  1. Although I’m not an English mother tongue, I’m still learning, I’m very pleased
    when I find such a clear, well-written piece.
    Thank you Rob.

      • Thank you, Rob. I really appreciate your words. However, I still have a lot of work to do to be fluent. I’m Italian.
        Regards, John.

    • Hi John, well Ciao. My grandmother was Italian. I was in Italy last year and had the best time. In fact I while I was there, I wrote a story, a short black comedy about a strange man who lived in Florence. It’s called The Pusher. Here it is, http://www.amazon.com/The-Pusher-ebook/dp/B00B8L58F2/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1373158789&sr=1-2

      You need to go to an English speaking country and immerse yourself in the culture. There are many Italians in Australia. In fact I live next to the major town where many Italian/Australians reside. Love everything about Italy. I envy you living there. Cheers Rob

      • G’day Rob,
        You’re right, of course. I’ve decided to go to England by the end of the next year, indeed.
        One day, I would like also to visit your enchanting country.
        An Australian penpal of mine invited me to her house either.
        I strongly hope to get a chance to come down there as soon as possible.
        Thank you for the link. It might be my next English reading. I have been reading another
        English book for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, it has been taking me such a ridiculously long time.
        I mean, I’m not so good at reading yet. 🙂
        Greetings, John.

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