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Writing in Plain Style 

Writing for a broad audience can be difficult, especially if the goal is to explain tasks or new information. For this reason, many writers—and readers—prefer plain style, which emphasizes the readers' needs. Plain style is reader-friendly because it's clear, concise, and precise; it uses short, action-driven sentences free of jargon to make language accessible and easy to understand. That's likely why readers across a wide variety of audiences prefer it, but plain style also has other benefits, like making documents more cost-effective and easier to update.

 We’ve identified a few best practices to help you write in plain style: 

  • Keep it brief

Short sentences are less likely to confuse readers because they tend to be less complicated and ambiguous. For task-oriented information, try to limit your sentences to about 20 words; for conceptual information, about 25 words. 

 With design-time controls, you control the look and feel of your Web pages in a WYSIWYG editor environment, and at the same time use all the functionality of SAS/IntrNet software in your Web pages. (35 words) 

 With design-time controls, you control the look and feel of your Web pages in a WYSIWYG editor environment. In addition, you can use all the functionality of SAS/IntrNet software in your Web pages. (19 +15 = 34 words) 

  • Use active voice

Active voice emphasizes the action in the sentence and the agent of that action. Active voice is shorter and easier to understand than passive voice, which emphasizes the recipient of the action. For example, compare, “She kicked the ball” (active voice) and “The ball was kicked by her” (passive voice). However, the passive voice may be appropriate when the action agent is unknown or irrelevant. 

 To access the results that are returned by the query, use standard JDBC syntax. (14 words) 

 To access the results that the query returns, use standard JDBC syntax. (12 words) 

  • Be logical, literal, and precise

Focus on the literal meaning of the sentence. 

 This report compares the salaries of different departments for employees who have the same education level. 

 This report compares the salaries of employees who have the same education level, grouped by department. 

  • Use verbs, not nouns 

Verbs emphasize action and generally require fewer words. Turning nouns into verbs is one way to make sentences shorter and clearer. 

 The committee came to an agreement to the effect that a study should be carried out by the consultants into the feasibility of the provision of national funding. (28 words) 

 The committee agreed that the consultants should study the feasibility of providing national funding. (14 words) 

  • Build towards new information

Put easier information and/or information readers are more familiar with at the beginning of the sentence, and build towards newer and/or more complex information at the end. Additionally, arrange actions in the order they occur and name the action agents in the sentence. This helps manage readers’ stress in locating important information, and it also makes the information easier to understand because it’s explained along the way. 

 Its decision on allocation of ESF assistance will be taken subsequent to receipt of all project applications at the Committee's meeting.  

 When all applicants have submitted their project applications, the Committee will meet to decide how much ESF aid it will grant to each one. 

  • Avoid jargon 

Jargon is one of readers’ most common frustrations. Writers often don’t realize that their audience may not be as familiar with specialized terms as they are. Furthermore, jargon tends to be dense and wordy, so avoiding it makes sentences shorter and clearer. 

 The patient is being given positive-pressure ventilatory support. 

 The patient is on a respirator. 

  • Use clear and consistent terminology 

Using different terms for the same idea can confuse readers. They may not understand that the different terms refer to the same thing, or they may wonder if there’s a meaningful distinction being made that they don’t understand. If you plan to use multiple terms for the same idea in order to avoid being repetitive, be sure to clarify that to your readers. 

 “Article,” “blog,” “blog post,” “post,” “piece,” “entry” 

 “Blog”