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Aaron Dalton

What is Plain Language? Part 5: The Nitty-gritty

Illustration of four people collaborating over two computers on a desk. Abstract images representing ideas and success appear in the background.
Illustration of four people collaborating over two computers on a desk. Abstract images representing ideas and success appear in the background.
Copyright: alisarut

This is the fifth and last in a series of articles discussing the basic principles of plain language by Aaron Dalton.

I offer two half-day workshops: the first is all about the why and then we look at some document-level issues like tone. This is the workshop that I am most passionate about and try to get in front of as many employees as I can. The more mechanical parts that I am going to summarize here are relegated to a second workshop that is still useful and valuable but is not where I want authors to spend too much energy. This is because the editor can fix many sentence-level issues with minimal intervention from the writer. But what the editor can’t do is actually write the document.

By the time a document comes to me, there is limited time, and the project team — who may have been working on the document for many months — has limited energy for back-and-forths. I have to balance many competing interests (see my earlier blog post on this problem). So what I want authors to spend the most energy doing is drafting the document with empathy. I like to call my teaching efforts “proactive editing.”

But there is an interest in the finer-level mechanics, so I’m happy to teach them. These won’t be new to my fellow editors, and you can find a great deal of material online about any one of them, so I will simply summarize here.

Structure

  • Get to the point: Make your document title explicit and use the “inverted pyramid” approach as much as reasonable for the document as a whole and for each individual section.
  • Use descriptive headings: Your table of contents should tell a story. Prefer headings that describe content, not function (e.g., choose “Issues with Pipeline Right-of-Way” over “Problem Definition”).
  • Use topic sentences: Each paragraph should have a specific point to make—a purpose. That purpose should be made clear within the first three sentences.

Sentences

  • Prefer shorter sentences.
  • Keep subject and verb close together.
  • Minimize the passive voice.
  • Minimize negative phrases.

Words

  • Minimize jargon.
  • Prefer shorter words.
  • Avoid noun strings (e.g., mineral surface lease renewal application form guide).
  • The main action of the sentence should be expressed in the verb. This will naturally eliminate unnecessary nominalizations and lead to using stronger verbs.

Further reading

Finally, I’ve gathered research, case studies and links to other resources on subjects of interest to editors in my collection “Empirical Research for Editors.”

Are there any plain language tips you would add? Any resources you’ve come to rely on?

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Previous post from Aaron Dalton: What is Plain Language? Part 4: Craftsmanship

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