What is Plain Language?

Young man wearing black pants and suspenders with a white shirt looks confused while reading a document.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (The Princess Bride)

The purpose of technical writing is to share information, not documentation. Content can be both perfectly spelled and perfectly meaningless. Just ask anyone who has wrestled with a legal document, municipal regulation or software manual.

Plain Language” offers the following guidelines for creating more effective – and meaningful – content.

One size does not always fit all

Divide your audience into user groups based on the type of information they need and how they will use it.

For example, an employee trying to submit a vacation request through the company’s HR system probably doesn’t need to know how to run compliance reports for that system.

Don’t overwhelm your reader with information they don’t need and will not use.

Yeah, I’m talking to YOU

Engage the reader by addressing them directly, using second person pronouns (“you/your”).

Get to the point

This isn’t a scavenger hunt.

Put key information up front – bonus points for a summary. Move detailed discussions to the back and add links between the two so that readers can click to take a deeper dive if they want to.

Save the cliff hangers for that novel you’ve been secretly working on.

“Bite-sized” for easy consumption

Don’t force your reader to wade through endless blocks of text. Use “info-chunking” to break content into smaller topics that are easier to consume.

Show them the way

Use headings and transition words, like “then,” “next,” “before,” and  “after,” to help your reader navigate through the content.

Headings should be short – 5 words or less – but informative. For example, “Configuration Options” is shorter but “Configure Remote Workload Controls” tells the reader what type of options are discussed and what purpose they serve.

Choose your words carefully

This is not the time to unleash your inner Roget’s. If you can say it in 5 words – don’t use 15.

  • Use active verbs – in their simplest form
  • Avoid excessive jargon and “techspeak”
  • Use short, clear sentences – keep your subjects, verbs and their objects close

Add a little “eye candy”

Visual elements, like colors, graphics, charts, lists, and tables, are a great way to break up big blocks of text…

…BUT make sure they are relevant, appropriate, and don’t overwhelm your document.

Too many visuals can be distracting, rather than helpful. They can also increase file size and load time – which can be an issue for remote or mobile readers.

Lead by example

Examples help readers make the connection between “concept” and “conduct.” Use common scenarios with which your readers can easily identify.

Thou shalt – NOT

“Shall” sounds stuffy – and its meaning isn’t always clear.

Instead of “shall” use:

  • “Must” when something is REQUIRED
  • “May” when it is OPTIONAL
  • “Should” when it is RECOMMENDED

And finally…

If you need to diagram the sentence to figure out what’s going on, you are not using Plain Language.


Is your documentation difficult to understand? We can help! Contact MATC to learn how our technical writers can help you create clear documentation that will save you time and money.


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