I love my wife. I tell her so several times a day. When we wake up, on the phone, when we get home from work, before we drift off to sleep. The day just doesn’t feel complete without it.
On Valentine’s Day, however, we won’t do anything special. No office deliveries of long-stemmed red roses. No Hallmark greeting card with ready-made sentiments to express what I am (apparently) incapable of expressing on my own. And no making reservations at a hoity-toity restaurant weeks in advance to dine on an overpriced prix fixe menu.
Nope, we have a nice, quiet dinner at home. Maybe a fire, maybe a Netflix movie. We believe you show your love every single day by doing all the little things that make life more wonderful for each other. It’s hard to feel cherished if “cherished” means getting a box of chocolates from the local convenience store on the way home from work every February 14.
Plain writing, in a way, is like our approach to Valentine’s Day.
A stretch? Consider the following:
- Plain writing requires a daily commitment. It takes effort. Those who get paid to write for a living can tell you that crafting short, to-the-point, jargon-free, easy-to-understand prose is rarely done in a first pass. (Consider this paraphrased quote, attributed widely but perhaps earliest to Blaise Pascal: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”)
- Plain language expresses the heart of the concept. It loathes the trappings of extraneous prose. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes: What do I need to know and do? What is the key message? Can I understand and apply what you just wrote after I read it? Are you respecting me and my time by removing excess material that I don’t need?
- Plain language is really about love (the selfless, agape, Mother Theresa-type love of humanity). Do you care about the people for whom you write? Does it matter to you whether they are elevated and enhanced by your prose, or obstructed and defeated by it? If you enjoy writing, and are still receiving a paycheck for doing it, then likely the answer is “yes.”
Using plain language in your prose means caring for your readers. It means doing the heavy lifting for your readers, so they don’t have to. Here are some of the things you do as a writer who cares:
- You take the time to think through the concept, identify the key points, cut out the fluff, and present the essential, must-know message.
- You chunk together like concepts for your reader, so that remembering is easier for them.
- You prepare your reader for what you’re going to write about next by using subheadings and smart transitions.
- You write in short, active voice sentences, so that slow readers can retain what you said at the beginning of your sentence by the time they get to the end.
- You think of simple words and phrases and forego jargon, because that’s a specialty language for those who already know what those terms mean.
- You make the effort, for educational materials, to test them with representatives from your target audience, using their feedback to improve before you publish.
- You take into account culture, belief systems, and diverse backgrounds when creating materials, so that your readers feel included, not excluded.
- You take the time and do the research to understand your audience as best you can. What are their needs? Their interests? What is their ability to understand the messages you’re providing them?
Writing clearly, using plain language, is not easy. It takes a daily commitment. Doing a “brain dump” on the page is easy. But that serves our purposes, not those of our readers.
Isn’t love really about putting the needs and the well-being of others before our own?
Celebrate love. Love your readers. Give them the best Valentine they ever got—every single day.
Use plain language. Every day.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
About the author: Michael Villaire is CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Advancement, a 501(c)(3) public charity with a strong initiative in the area of health literacy. Michael runs their annual continuing education conference and writes and lectures nationally on health literacy and clear health communication.