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Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN) | How it made me a better writer and editor

Nearly 15 years ago, I was surfing the Web looking for websites that provide free, useful information and advice about writing. I had launched my first website, Garbl's Writing Resources Online, in 1997 and was searching for more websites to add to its annotated directory.

And I came across the website of the Plain Language Association InterNational, or PLAIN. I had heard statements like "Put that into plain English" and "This crap needs to be written in plain language." But I wasn't aware of any standard philosophy, principles or organization that advocated for plain English or plain language.

I encourage you to check out the PLAIN website, other Web resources listed there, and my own plain-language resources described later in this article. Following plain-language principles will improve the effectiveness of your writing.

As I learned more about PLAIN and plain language, I was intrigued. I began studying the PLAIN site and was impressed with all the hands-on advice it provides for applying its writing and design standards. It fit well with the lessons I learned in journalism classes and tried to practice through my career in newspaper reporting and public relations.

I had learned that news articles and feature stories must provide information that's important or interesting to readers. Reporters must highlight news that has or could have an impact on the lives of readers and their communities, state and country.

I also learned that articles must be clear and concise (as well as fair, objective and accurate). Reporters should strive to remove jargon or at least explain it. I learned that articles must highlight the main point(s) immediately, in the first paragraph (or lead).

I had learned and followed those principles and others in journalism. But 15 years ago, I found that those principles and others also apply to plain language. And I was hooked. I realized the principles I had learned do not just apply to the work of reporters and editors. They're valuable--and essential-- to all writers in all fields who want to meet the needs of their readers.

Of course, my discovery of plain language also improved my writing and editing.

I went on to study other websites, books and other organizations that advocated for plain language and plain English. I met and corresponded with plain-language advocates. I became active in PLAIN, eventually serving on its board, managing its website, and moderating its email discussion group for more than five years.

I also added information to my growing website, eventually called Garbl's Writing Center. The category listing plain-language resources got its own page. I added sections on concise writing. I highlighted words and terms in my editorial style manual that can confuse or mislead readers. And I added a section that describes the steps to creating a plain-language document:
In addition, I began advocating for use of plain language at work--in training sessions I conducted, in my copyediting, and in online resources for employees. I also advocated for including information about plain language when my employer developed guidelines for translating documents for people with limited English proficiency.

And I now highlight my dedication to the principles of plain language in the writing, editing and training I do through Garbl's Pencil & Good Cause Communications.
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You also can read and subscribe to my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs. It's available at the Plain Language tab above.

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