Simplify: Studies Suggest Using Plain Language When Writing Web Content
You may have heard that you should write using “plain language.” But have you ever wondered why? Research has the answers. Plain language is not just a fad. There are proven reasons why using plain language can help your business.
What Exactly Is Plain Language?
Plain language is a way to write content that readers can understand easily and quickly. Plain language simplifies language — but it doesn’t dumb it down. Instead, it makes language clearer and lets you convey your message more accurately.
People sometimes think that using complicated sentences and flowery words makes them look smarter. But all they are doing is making their writing harder to read. Plain language cuts out unnecessary complexity, all in the service of greater clarity.
Consider this example from plainlanguage.gov:
Before (not plain language): “When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.”
After (plain language): “If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.”
Plain Language for Business
Plain language is especially important when you are writing content for websites. People looking for information online scan more than they read. If your writing is hard to read, they may leave your site and look for another.
Using plain writing also sends the message that your business is trustworthy and transparent.
Studies Show the Benefits of Plain Language
Researchers have been studying plain language for a long time. Joseph Kimble discussed 25 studies in “Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please,” published in a 1996-1997 journal.
These studies found that plain language had sensational results:
- People could read memos written in plain language in 17 to 25 percent less time than memos written in dense bureaucratic language — and they understood what they read much better.
- By providing plain language manuals, a company reduced customer service calls from 50 a day to a mere two a month.
- A phone company reduced customer complaints and questions by 25 percent by simplifying the language in its bills.
- A state in Australia rewrote its court forms, which saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff salaries per year.
- Ford rewrote an owner’s manual in plain language, and 85 percent of buyers preferred it to the old version.
When Should You Use Plain Language on Your Website?
It might seem like a no-brainer to use plain language when writing for the general public. For example, plain language can make technical material understandable to a wider audience.
But what if your readers are highly educated specialists? What if you are writing for medical professionals, engineers, or scientists? Should you throw plain language out the window then?
The answer, studies show, is a resounding no. The Nielsen Norman group conducted research showing that educated experts, just like non-experts, preferred content that was written in plain language.
Plain language is good for everyone.
Out of the Lab and Into the World
The studies show that using plain language can save your company time and money. It can dramatically improve the content on your website and make your web readers happier. Happy readers become loyal customers.
That’s the why. What about the how?
A few simple steps can bring the proven benefits of plain language to your website:
- Start by identifying your audience. Do you know who will be reading your content? If not, who is in your ideal target group?
- Use words that your audience knows.
- Write in a casual, conversational style. Don’t be stuffy!
- Choose strong verbs.
- Take a virtual machete and chop out fluff. As they say in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, “Omit needless words”!
- If you can choose a shorter word or a longer word that mean the same thing, go for the shorter word.
- If you write a sentence that is all knotted up, untangle it.
- Visual elements help guide your readers through your content. Short paragraphs, lots of white space, headers, and lists all make it easier for people to scan, read, and understand the content on your website.
How to Work With a Writer
Hiring a professional writer can take your website content to the next level. Make sure that your writer knows you want him or her to use plain language. WriterAccess lets you fill out a creative brief, which is an easy way to give clear instructions to your writer. For expectation-exceeding results, include the following in the creative brief:
- A brief description of your target audience
- Request the writer uses headers and lists
- Mention that you want short paragraphs and simple language
If you haven’t tried using plain language before, give it a go. You have nothing to lose but your bloated words and confusing sentences. And paragraphs that are so dense and tangled that — to paraphrase the old Roach Motel ads — your readers go in, but they never come out. Make life easy for your website visitors, and your bottom line will grow.
Marjorie R has written articles online for more than 15 years and has also written humor for American Greetings and crossword puzzles for the New York Times. She wrote an entertainment blog that was consistently in the top 5 in the Google search results, and at its peak was #1 out of a total of 66,499,997 results. She has a B.A. in Psychology from UC Berkeley, an M.A. in Creative Writing/English from SF State, and a J.D. from UC Hastings.