Plain English, why it matters and how NALA’s (The National Adult Literacy Agency) Plain English Editing and Training Service can help you
What is plain English?
Plain English is a way to write and present information so a reader can understand and act on it after a single reading. Plain English goes beyond using only short words and sentences. It includes designing and writing information in a way that meets the needs of the reader.
Plain English means:
- writing accurately and clearly for the intended reader;
- avoiding jargon, except for people who will understand it; and
- using clear layout and design so the information is easy on the eye.
Plain English is mainly intended for documents and websites that the public rely on to make decisions. It is also useful when writing to colleagues, who may frequently be too busy to read through a long document to pull out the key points.
Why plain English matters?
It can help everyone save time – and money.
Clearer writing leads to fewer mistakes and misunderstandings, leading to more effective use of staff time.
- After producing a clearer bill in plain English, British Telecom saw customer inquiries fall by 25% each quarter. Customers also paid their bills more promptly, which improved revenue and reduced the cost of collecting overdue bills. Before the change, BT had received a million calls a year.
- When Arizona’s Department of Revenue rewrote one letter in plain English, it received about 11,000 fewer phone calls than it had the previous year. Plain English helped improve efficiency and staff morale, as employees were no longer answering the same questions repeatedly.
It improves the general standard of writing.
By taking steps to use plain English, your writing becomes clearer for everyone, not just a particular group. The guidelines that underpin plain English introduce good practice into all forms of writing and layout.
- A Princeton University study showed that people regarded writers who used unnecessarily complicated words and typefaces as less intelligent than those who used everyday language and clear fonts. 1
- Online, improving how information is written and presented can improve usability by 124%. 2
It gives everyone a fair chance to access essential services.
One of the main benefits of plain English is that it helps to remove complex language that may be too difficult for certain sections of the population to read.
In effect, it helps to create a level playing field where people, such as adults with literacy difficulties, are no longer excluded from understanding their obligations and exercising their rights.
It improves accountability and compliance.
Using plain English also improves accountability and compliance. Using the personal voice gives ownership of a task to a person or organisation. It also helps people better understand and comply with standards, terms and conditions and so on. The Central Bank’s Consumer Protection Code 2012 requires the firms it regulates to use plain English.
NALA’s Plain English Editing and Training Service and how it can help you
NALA (The National Adult Literacy Agency) set up its Plain English Editing and Training Service in 2005 in response to organisations’ need for support in providing clear and assessable information to their customers and or staff, some of whom had literacy difficulties. Since then NALA has provided plain English editing and training services to a wide range of clients such as:
- The Health Information Quality Authority (HIQA),
- The Director of Corporate Enforcement,
- The Road Safety Authority,
- FBD Insurance,
- MSD Ireland (Pharmaceutical Company),
- The Food Safety Authority of Ireland,
- The Health and Safety Authority of Ireland,
- The Office of Pensions Ombudsman,
- Over a dozen government departments,
- The Houses of the Oireachtas, and
- Various other organisations, bodies and individuals.
NALA’s Plain English Editing and Training Service can:
- provide you with free plain English resources,
- edit your documents in plain English and award its Plain English Mark (a quality mark),
- provide high quality plain English training to staff and or volunteers, and
- help you develop a style guide for your organisation.
1. Free plain English resources available on www.simplyput.ie
www.simplyput.ie is NALA’s website dedicated to all things plain English. It includes quick tips, lists of words and phrases to replace, checklists to help you review your documents and links to our plain English guides to legal, political, environmental and social services terms, among others. It also features information on NALA’s services and includes updates on what is happening in plain English overseas.
2. Editing your documents
NALA’s editing supports can help you produce clear publications and internal documents.
When NALA edit a document or online information, its team of editors do whatever they think is needed to make it clearer for the intended reader. So, for example, they might insert more headings or bulleted lists, use different formatting (for example removing block capitals), reorder or delete whole sections and suggest tables or charts instead of paragraphs. This is in addition to proofreading and simplifying each sentence or paragraph.
At all times, NALA discuss your document with you before, during and after any editing so that it can provide the best possible service.
NALA’s Plain English Mark is a logo that organisations can include on their websites or printed documents to indicate that their materials meet international plain English standards. Many organisations choose this option to show that they have made the effort to make their materials as clear as possible.
3. Plain English training
NALA’s plain English training courses vary from short workshops to half-day and full-day courses. It offers open courses, for people from different organisations, or can tailor a course to a single organisation. It can also offer train-the-trainer courses to groups.
Through real-world examples and exercises, NALA’s training is as relevant and informative as possible. Regular exercises give participants the opportunity to apply what they learn in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere.
4. Style guide development
NALA has worked with a number of organisations to produce style guides for their particular documents. These guides help ensure you use consistent terms, clear language and clean design and can apply to anything from a suite of documents to a department to a whole organisation.
If you are interested in learning more about plain English, or using NALA’s Plain English Editing Service, visit www.simplyput.ie and or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your question or request. NALA looks forward to hearing from you.
Oppenheimer, D.M., 2005. Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly. Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology 2005.
Reported in Science Daily and available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/10/051031075447.htm
Jakob Nielsen, ‘How Users Read on the Web’, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/ .