For two years, I worked as a college writing center tutor while enrolled in a graduate professional writing program. Over those two years, I studied, practiced, and helped others with clear writing. While the papers I read every day in the writing center ranged from argumentative essays, persuasive essays, and research papers to more creative, narrative essays, they all had one thing in common: they were written for a target audiience—a professor. And from assignment conception to finished product, plain language played a significant role.
Giving clear instructions and grading rubrics
Professors provided students with grading rubrics that outlined the assignment’s goals with detailed bullet points and weighted percentages or points next to each item. As writing tutors, we highly recommended that students bring rubrics and assignment descriptions with them to tutoring sessions so that we could easily go through their papers, checking off whether their drafts covered each assignment “goal” or topic.
Meeting the user’s end goals
Not only did the rubric help students or me as the tutor review drafts and revise unclear sections, but it also helped professors easily grade papers as the rubric became a performance checklist tool. As busy professors who read and graded assignments for 20 or more students, they could quickly determine if the assignment requirements or goals were met in the end.
Increasing readability by using plain language
I also found that writing academic assignments in plain language saves time, increases readability, and reduces frustration for all parties, especially the end user. If professors can clearly understand a student’s argument and see that the student effectively handled the assignment, they won’t turn into frustrated readers who waste time deciphering unclear jargon or disorganized thoughts to see if the student understood the assignment.
Applying clear writing beyond college
And in the long run, plain language skills applied in academia lead to better outcomes for students when they enter the workforce. As a young professional, I’ve witnessed the value of clear, direct communication. Busy professionals don’t have time to read long, unclear messages that require several email chains asking for more clarification. When I send emails to my manager or team, I force myself to think in plain language principles. I keep sentences short and to the point, use bullet points, and write a clear subject line that tells the reader what deliverable or action I need and when I need it. All these skills tie back to how we (professors, tutors, and students) applied plain language principles in the college writing process.
About the Author: Brittnee Alford is a web content editor at ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. She is passionate about plain language, user-centered design, and digital content management.