Writing in plain language is a great skill to develop if you’re trying to communicate with a wide variety of audiences. After five years of university (four of them in an English/History degree), I thought I knew a thing or two about writing. During that time hundreds of thousands of words have crossed my desk and made their way into research papers. So when I started to work on Trail resources for young families, I assumed that writing in plain language would be simple to do. After so many years of academic writing, explaining facts to kids is easy, right?
As it turns, out, plain language isn’t so plain. It takes a lot of careful thought to strike the right tone in any work of writing, and jumping from one style to another is a skill that requires practice to develop. My year at NORDIK taught me a lot about writing for new audiences. Here’s what I learned about plain language.
My top Five Tips for writing in Plain Language
Test your texts – but don’t rely on scores alone.
Many museum exhibits aim for a reading level of around Grade 6. My work typically ranged from Grades 4 to 8. There are a variety of ways to score readability. Each formula looks at different indicators, such as sentence length and number of syllables, to determine the difficulty of your text. The Flesch-Kincaid score gives you results in terms of school grade levels and you can test your text right in Microsoft Word. However, it’s important not to rely solely on scores. Tone, syntax, diction, and content all play a role (as do formatting choices including colours and fonts). Your sentence might score well because it consists of short words, but complicated clauses could still make reading difficult. And of course, just because a word is short doesn’t automatically make it easy to understand. Get rid of the jargon!
These resources explain some of the factors that go into writing effectively, including in a museum context:
- William DuBay, Working with Plain Language – a training manual for plain language, including excerpts of writing for different grade levels.
- Beverley Serrell, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach – a detailed look at what makes museum writing good, bad, and great.
- David Dean, Museum Exhibition: Theory and Practice – includes content about audiences and learning.
Research and find some inspiration.
When the writing gets difficult, it’s often helpful to take a break and look at other examples for inspiration. I’ve heard a few times that newspapers are good examples of writing for general audiences. I respectfully disagree. It always depends on the specific article, and many of them are not written in language that would be easily understood by children or newcomers, for example. During this year, there were a few times that I glanced at excerpts of children’s non-fiction for ideas. This also really helped me find fun ways to explain topics that might otherwise get boring or dry. If you can find some great examples of the type of writing you’re looking for, learn from them! They are resonating with you for a reason.
Read your work out loud.
This is a good habit to get into for any kind of writing. When you read something out loud, you tend to catch the mistakes you’ve overlooked on the screen. It also gives you a chance to test the tone of your work. Through creating the Trail resources I was able to give samples of my work to focus groups – samples of our desired audiences – and let them test it for themselves. Fresh eyes are always helpful.
It takes a lot of practice, a lot of patience, and (most likely) a lot of edits and rewrites to get comfortable with a variety of writing styles. For me, going from academic writing to plain language was a paradigm shift. Through practice I helped establish a voice for the project that I was later able to use with ease.
Don’t assume plain means boring!
Material for kids can be interesting and informative, given enough care on the part of the author. You can say a lot without writing a monograph. Have fun with it!