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Sunday, November 11, 2012

An Introduction to Plain Language by Cheryl Stephens

Plain language is communication that can be understood by the intended audience and meets the purpose of the communicator.
That's the first sentence in this article by a leader in the global plain language movement and co-founder of the Plain Language Association InterNational (or PLAIN).

Of course, Stephens begins her article by answering the question, "What is Plain Language?" She writes:
Plain language is language that is understandable. What is clear, or what is plain to your intended audience, can only be decided by the audience. Most people expect a definition of plain language that describes writing of a certain style. Plain language is more a process -- it has been described as a means to an end.
After emphasizing the importance of providing information that readers not only need but also understand, she writes:
A crucial feature of plain language is testing the writing to determine whether it adequately conveys to the targeted reader the writer's intentions. The question is whether there is enough shared meaning between the writer and the reader. This definition of plain language is "reader-based" and not "text-based" analysis of a writing style.
She continues by clearly describing plain language process under these headings:

Planning Guidelines

Preparing a plain language document is more than just writing: it is a project. Any project has a planning phase, but a plain language project requires some research and analysis of your audience and purpose. ...

Analyze the Task
Determine the Procedure

Audience Considerations

Plain language is language understood by its audience. Audience research and assessment is crucial to achieving ultimate success with a plain language document.

How Many Audiences Are There?
The Most Significant Audience
Know your audiences
Primary Audience

Writing as a Process

The writing process is sometimes described as: prewriting, writing, and revising. Here are the steps in the plain language writing process.

Planning
Writing
Editing and Designing
Evaluation

Writing Guidelines

[Stephens provides some plain language tips for writing and organizing information and for revising your writing or editing the writing of others.]

Writing
Rewriting

Testing and Evaluation

Plain language process requires that the reader be consulted about the success of the communication. Through testing you learn whether the intended message has been expressed to the intended audience.

Test the Original Document before Revising
Ask Your Peers to Edit
Evaluate Your Own Document
Test Documents on a Sample Audience
Interview Individuals
Use Focus Groups

Cheryl Stephens is the author of Plain Language Legal Writing and three other books. The most recent is Plain Language In Plain English, a guide to principles and techniques to shift to plain language. She publishes two websites: Plain Language Wizardry and Plainlanguage.com. Stephens lives in the Pacific Northwest but provides training and workshops to clients all over North America.

Plain Language Association International is a volunteer professional association that advocates clear writing and design. It provides free online resources to help people use language that everyone in their audience can easily understand.

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Stephens' article is featured today, Nov. 11, in my online daily paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs--available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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