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Plain language in practice

Gems from a recent conference Access for all: plain language is a civil right

We attended the virtual Access for all: plain language is a civil right conference last month. It was an international coming together of people and organizations “dedicated to using plain language to break down barriers in society”. Its themes were design, literacy, and practice. We saw many successful examples of putting clear language into practice—small steps towards changing the world!

This article shares our highlights with you:

Clear writing is not just about the text—plain language meets design

Clear documents are made up of much more than just word choice—how you lay out information on a page also decides readability. In other words, the plain language movement has collided with information‐ and user‐centered design.

Several presentations showed how solutions for things like creating user‐friendly interfaces and presenting easy‐to‐understand data could be applied to writing. (There are plenty of problems to solve and non‐user‐friendly documents in the workplace!)

Take it back to your own writing—a ready‐to‐use library of pre‐solved problems
This design pattern library was the most exciting part of the conference for us. Some very smart people recognized that most workplace documents face the same common problems, so they:

Essentially, these patterns are ‘thinking templates’. By using them, you don’t need to go to the trouble of solving those problems for yourself when you write or edit. Instead, you can build on their good thinking and produce clear documents, faster.

Here’s an example article on how to use icons in contracts, so text follows a pattern that helps readers recognize what kind of information they are reading. Their articles explain:

The site also has plenty of other patterns you can use, as well as real-life examples to see each one in action.

Contracts that are truly enjoyable to read—yes, it’s possible

Did you know that it’s possible for contracts not to be blocks of unreadable text? When you stop to think about it, it’s kind of important for both sides of an agreement to actually understand the terms they are agreeing to. Think about the consequences if, for example, an oil company and delivery company have different interpretations of who is responsible for risk during shipping.

Several presentations tackled this particular problem and showed how much further we can take legal writing. Not only is it possible to write more clearly and understandably, you can also use design and graphics in contracts to make them more readable.

Take this excerpt from a privacy policy as one example of what’s possible:

graphic example of data collector

We told you! Not only is it readable, it’s pleasant to read.

What does it do differently?
This privacy policy:

See the whole policy here, if you’re interested. It’s open source, too!!!

What does “accessible information” really mean?

CommunicateHealth is founded on the belief that everyone deserves clear and simple information about their health. It is a community of writers, designers, social science researchers, web developers, educators, entrepreneurs—all dedicated to helping organizations translate, write, and test their online health content to ensure it’s easy to understand.

Two of their employees talked about what, exactly, it means to write inclusively. When you think ‘accessibility’, your brain may immediately think ‘write for disabilities’. But these speakers pointed out that writing accessibly means so much more. It means including everyone—like:

Take a minute to reflect on this. What does “accessible” mean in your context?

If you’re in the world of health (or even if you’re not!), this health literacy website will be useful to you. It is a guide to help you write health information in a way that is accessible and easy to understand for all. It is very research based—it sites studies on how adults with limited literacy process information, how users read differently online than on paper, and it gives plenty of advice and solutions for common problems.