The Plain Truth – Why Clearly Written Documents Solve Multiple Problems

    Whoever came up with the idea that important information should be difficult to read? If you have ever struggled to understand the content of documents such as insurance policies, lease contracts, or patient information sheets, you have experienced this complexity first-hand – and that’s in your own language! Imagine the experience of non-native speakers who are suddenly confronted with concepts they know little about, and the content is communicated in convoluted, lengthy sentences. Documents written in a bureaucratic, jargon-filled style can even pose a risk, for example, when a reader fails to understand warnings and conditions, or misses important instructions.

    Plain language documents have many advantages. When readers have a better understanding of a document, they can follow instructions and find the information they need. Well-structured, clearly written texts can also cut down on needless inquiries and prevent costly misunderstandings. According to the definition of the International Plain Language Federation, “communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” In the United States, the effort to make official documents more accessible began in the 20th century. Citibank made headlines in 1978 when it rewrote its promissory notes in layperson language, and President Clinton instructed federal government agencies to use plain language, noting that understandable wording “saves the Government and the private sector time, effort, and money”. The 2010 Plain Writing Act made it mandatory for U.S. government agencies to issue clearly written documents that would help users find and understand the content they needed.

    It all starts with jargon

    Professional groups of all stripes typically have specialized language that can be hard to understand by those on the outside. While the use of jargon may be appropriate within a professional community, it can cause confusion for other audiences. Some (adequately explained) terminology is of course important, but easily accessible language offers many advantages. For example, a user-friendly technical instruction manual is more helpful, and patients prefer clearly worded medical forms.

    It is a common misconception that plain language means “dumbing” a text down. Instead, it is more appropriate to say that plain language is designed to focus on the needs of readers. When the writer focuses on the purpose of communication – the reason why is it important for a specific reader to have the relevant information – it becomes clear how much specialized terminology is needed. In addition, it is helpful to give some thought to the characteristics of the audience, such as age, educational background, and existing experience. Here at Creole Solutions, we always ask our clients about the intended target audience for their texts. This information gives us important clues about the reading level and complexity of the translated text.

    Plain language is equally valuable for translation

    According to plain language principles, drafting a document involves the following areas:

    • Audience and purpose
    • Structure
    • Design
    • Expression
    • Evaluation

    As anyone who works with foreign languages can attest, these aspects also apply to translating a text. The effort to improve the style and logical structure of a text to make it more understandable isn’t limited to a single language. As translators, we often encounter situations in which we must select the most suitable expression from several choices. A translated text is most effective when it can be understood right away, without any guesswork on the part of the reader. That may mean that the text looks a little different than the source. For example, a translator may choose to break a complex sentence with multiple subclauses into several shorter sentences. At times, we even suggest a bulleted list for highly complex materials.

    Creole Solutions frequently receives requests to translate materials for Haitians living in the United States. Depending on the situation, there may be a discrepancy between the reading level of an English source document and the anticipated reading level of the target audience. Here are a few problems we frequently encounter in texts to be translated:

    • Too much information. The writer wants to cover all possible scenarios and packs in so many details that the resulting text is far too dense for easy reading. Translating such documents into a different language can be challenging, as the many details create confusing complexity. We sometimes recommend organizing highly detailed information in bullet points to keep it clear.
    • Use of passive voice. Since Haitian Creole does not use the passive voice, we have to “pre-translate” passive voice structures into plain English before we can turn it into understandable Creole.
    • Over-the-top inclusive language. We welcome the public debate about the role of language in inclusivity and diversity. Language that is deliberately chosen to avoid stereotypes is helpful, but long lists of pronouns or convoluted constructs are not. Haitian Creole is a naturally inclusive language because nouns are not typically gendered. The pronoun “li” can mean “he” and “it”. That makes inclusive language difficult to translate.

    If the document you are preparing is intended for translation into other languages, removing complex jargon and writing shorter sentences serves an additional purpose: The translated version avoids unnecessary confusion and terminology mismatches.

    No matter whether you are writing your own communication or translating materials created by others, the principles of plain language are the key to optimal clarity.


    Further reading and resources:

    Marleen Julien, our founder and CEO, is a passionate plain language advocate. Here is a link of an interview with Leslie O’Flahavan on the topic.

    The U.S. government guide offers a wealth of information on writing for different audiences.

    Tips on using inclusive language can be found at:

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