One of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn as a writer was that using complex words was not a sign of good writing.
It’s a natural assumption to make. “Good” writing means writing that sounds “smart” — and what’s smarter than using vague or polysyllabic words that you really have to think about to understand?
How about using language that’s simple, clear, and gets its point across? In other words, how about plain language?
Understanding the value of plain language is something that a lot of individuals and businesses have trouble with. Hell, even the government of Canada hasn’t implemented plain language rules across all of its departments, as a recent news story about Revenue Canada has made clear.
Quick summary: an American firm reviewed thousands of letters sent to Canadian citizens by Revenue Canada (Canada’s version of the IRS) and found that they were “poorly organized, confusing, unprofessional, unduly severe, bureaucratic, one-sided and just plain dense”.
The cost of not using plain language
It gets worse, though. Turns out that having letters full of bureaucratic, complex language — AKA, what many people think sounds “smart” — has a huge cost:
All that gibberish comes with a human cost: confused taxpayers swamp the agency’s call centres with needless telephone inquiries, or they send thousands of letters to tax offices asking for clarification.
“Often the main purpose of the documents was not readily apparent, and other important information was scattered throughout the document or embedded in dense paragraphs,” Siegelvision said in its $25,000 review for the government.
The evaluation included an online survey of taxpayers by another firm, which asked respondents to examine a typical CRA notice that required the recipient to send the tax agency money. About half of those surveyed could not figure out they were supposed to write a cheque to the government because the document was so poorly written. [Emphasis added.]
Think about all of the waste in both time and money those poorly-written letters cause. Think about all of the money the government isn’t getting because people can’t understand that they need to submit a cheque.
Would you let “smart” sounding writing get in the way of actually getting the money you need to keep on going, whether you’re a business or individual?
I didn’t think so.
So what is plain language?
Put simply, plain language involves using common words and simple phrasing to make sure as many people as possible understand what you’re trying to say.
That doesn’t mean you have to sound like you’re writing for a five-year-old. But it does mean that you need to write clearly, avoiding heavily technical or insider-friendly terms. You have to assume that the people you’re talking to don’t know as much about your topic as you do.
Let’s face it, no one knows everything — but people do want to learn, and plain language is all about not getting in your reader’s way. Who knows how much money (literal and figurative) you’re leaving on the table otherwise?