Plain Language Reprise

A few years ago, I wrote a post on the Plain Writing Act, and received the honor of being Freshly Pressed on WordPress, probably not because of the quality of the post but more because of (1) the timeliness of the issue and (2) I happened to mention then-President Obama.

Plain writing and plain language are still pretty important issues and will become more so, as people have less and less time to read (and absorb what they have read). In my job, we do a lot of work for the federal government, which is still pushing for plain language as it attempts to make its reading material more accessible to the public.

A few of my coworkers went to a conference on plain language and learned that images and typography are just as important, if not more so, than words in conveying a message. Many elderly people cannot read text as easily when certain fonts are used, and they may not interpret symbols in the same way as a younger audience would.

The terminology used is also important; if you are writing a pamphlet for lay readers about how to detect early signs of a stroke, it is crucial that you use simple language, not complex medical jargon. People have a tendency to completely give up on reading something if it’s too complicated. They simply don’t have the time or the energy to sift through it. Your message may be important, but it will be lost if nobody reads it.

My parents received a booklet on Medicare benefits from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. I idly flipped through it and was surprised to see that the plain language principles were being used. The booklet was geared toward older people, so it was written in a larger font, it used images and text boxes, and there were fewer words on each page. It had a glossary in the back that defined commonly used terms in simpler language, and it seemed to be organized a lot more clearly than a lot of other government materials I had been seeing. It almost made me want to read it.

Even so, my parents didn’t read the booklet, at least not cover to cover. Perhaps the larger font made it seem like it was longer, perhaps my parents didn’t have the time, or perhaps it’s the simple fact that nobody really wants to sit around and read about Medicare because it’s one of the most boring topics in the known universe. The booklet was the kind of thing you look at when you are at your wit’s end trying to hunt for some tidbit of information that you thought you might have remembered seeing somewhere. And that’s all the more reason to make these types of documents accessible. The last thing you want to do is confuse or frustrate your audience, especially when they’re reading about a topic that’s confusing, frustrating, or boring to begin with.

Have you had any frustrating experiences with documents that did not use plain language principles?