Today is International Plain Language Day—a day to celebrate and advocate for plain language principles. The Plain Language Association International says writing “is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” Plain language is vitally important, especially in our digital era where we are reading content more than ever.
This month I completed my studies in an editing course on plain language principles. While going through the course, I found myself coming back to the same question:
How do plain language principles fit into the book world?
My plain language studies focused mainly on implementing plain language into business communications, advertising, technical documents, and contracts. These types of content benefit greatly from using plain language, but what about books? Should authors be implementing plain language principles as well? Is this even possible in some genres, such as fiction?
Pondering these questions led me to realize that yes, there is space for plain language principles in the literary world—and it may be more important that we realize.
Why plain language is important
Your audience and purpose
Using plain language principles involves identifying what the purpose of the content is and who the audience is. As an author, you can benefit from this practice as you begin writing your book. It is important for authors to know what the purpose of their book is and who they are writing for. Knowing these two key factors means that you can tailor your writing to who you want to reach. This involves the right style of writing and language use that will be familiar and attractive to your readers.
Your words and expression
All writers have different ways they like to write and express themselves. The way you write and the words you use frequently are what make you unique as an author. However, having a particular style of writing and language can be a barrier. We can actually work against ourselves if we are rigid with the way we write and express our ideas.
It all comes back to thinking about your audience. You need to know who you are writing for. Are you writing a sci-fi fiction for young adults? A children’s book about diversity? A memoir about your life growing up in an Indigenous community? Know who you are speaking to and ensure that your words are accessible and understandable to them. This doesn’t mean that you need to change your tone and your writing style completely, but rather tailor your voice so that your writing is still ‘you’ while connecting with your audience in a clear way. In the end, always ask yourself: What is the most important thing here? Is it to use that flowery and wordy sentence, or is it for the reader to understand what is going on?
Here is a quick list of questions you can use to see if you are using plain language in your writing:
Am I writing in concise sentences?
Am I using the active voice?
Am I using jargon?
Am I using words/phrases with double meanings?
Am I using complex words?
Am I explaining things in a way my reader will understand?
If you would like more information about plain language principles, I suggest visiting the Plain Language Association International website. If you prefer to learn with a book in your hands, you can purchase the Oxford Guide to Plain English by Martin Cutts and Plain Language in Plain English by Cheryl Stephens.