Frances Gordon, How to write in plain language: more than only words, 3rd APCOMTEC meeting in Aveiro

I was surprised to realize that only six people were attending the workshop that had the four of us travel all the way to Aveiro. There were a few sit-ins for the first hour, but they withdrew by the lunch break.

History of Plain Language

True to her style, Frances started by presenting the history of the plain language movement (Wikipedia has more US-centric details):

  • In language, clearness is everything. — Confucius, 460 BC
  • In 1971, Chrissie Maher began her campaign for plain English by attacking the city council for its gobbledygook. Read Born to crusade for very interesting background, including the plain newspaper Tuebrook Bugle (written by the people — for the people).
  • During the 1980s, a UK government project rewrote 58k forms. For example, see Difficult forms : how government agencies interact with citizens.
  • In 1998, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) published A Plain English Handbook.
  • During the 1990s, plain language was used for cost savings, but also as a tool for loyalty and brand.
  • During the 2000s, plain language was used for convenience and transparency.
  • In 2010, US approves the Plain Writing Act. See Plain Language Gov

Definitions of Plain Language

Frances is a member of IPLWG, International Plain Language Working Group. Frances said they took six years to agree on a definition:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information. — IPLWG

Another definition by Martin Cutts:

The writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a cooperative, motivated person a good chance of understanding the document at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.

Another definition:

Writing that can be understood at first reading by clients, lawyers and judges, …

Readability formulas (Flesch-Kincaid, Coleman-Liau, Gunning Fog index) were defined to grade American soldiers. These formulas point out bad text, but they cannot identify good text.

When consulting, Frances stated that she just dismisses text that the formulas point out as “too bad”, and concentrated on text that was “good enough”.

Writing principles

Frances advocates the following ten commandments for new documents:

  1. Improve spacing, typography and layout.
  2. Structure content, add headings.
  3. Add color and graphics.
  4. Improve language.
  5. Layer information, add summaries.
  6. Create a messaging strategy.
  7. Segment customers.
  8. Provide higher levels of personalization.
  9. Provide tools, analysis and advice.
  10. Create two-way dialogue.

Notice that these commandments actually start with an existing text, that Frances improves in ten steps.

Writers usually face the following issues:

  • I don’t know where to start.
  • No time!
  • I don’t know what to put in and what to leave out.
  • I want to sound clever.

Plan for readers always helps:

  • Who are the readers? What time is available to read? What is the motivation to read?
  • How do they use the document? Straight through or skip?
  • What do your readers want to know?
  • What else do they need to know? Anything extra that I must tell them that they may not consider asking about?

When writing, keep a specific person in your head. A persona.

Write as follows:

  • Choose plain words. Using a word people don’t know tells the reader to make an informed guess. You loose control of the document.
  • Keep sentences short. Break sentences, use lists.
  • Use lean phrases.
  • Write in the active voice.
  • Unlock strong verbs.

Practice: write for your readers

Frances walked us through a series of exercises, each one with a corresponding practical theory.

We started by answering the following questions about the document that each one of us was supposed to have brought to the workshop.

  • What do you know about your readers?
  • How do they use the document?
  • What do your readers want to know?
  • What do your readers need to know?
  • How will this information help you to write for your readers?

Practice: jargon and complex words

Given an obscure text, we circled unknown words, then discussed how the words made us feel helpless.

Then we analyzed lists of words, discussing how to replace complex words with simpler alternatives. We also discussed that jargon should be replaced or explained.

Practice: shorten sentences

Break long sentences into two sentences, or into lists. Use small paragraphs. Use lean sentences (avoiding wordy phrases) to write lively. Avoid overused words and phrases.

However, jargon is clearly a matter of context. Some of the overused words that Frances presented (function, structure, process, framework) are basic concepts in Computer Science.

Practice active voice, strong verbs

With the active voice, you know exactly who does what, and there is less room for double meanings (or ambiguity). The passive voice can easily create ambiguities.

How to rewrite passive sentences in the active voice:

  1. Find the passive action in the sentence.
  2. Find out who or what is doing the passive action (the actor).
  3. Put the actor before the action in the sentence.

While these three steps seem innocent enough, I failed to follow them through in one exercise, and thus missed the real actor hidden in a passive sentence.

Look out for “…ion”, “…ance”, “…ment” and “…ing of” to spot strong verbs hidden as nouns. For example, change “conduct an examination of” to "examine”.


This was only part of a larger two-day workshop. We missed the explanations and exercises on the following:

  • Story
  • Headings
  • Tables
  • Tone
  • Planning the document.

Simplified also sells other courses:

  • Writing definitions
  • Writing for the web
  • Writing proposals and tenders
  • Clear legal documents
  • PowerPoint with punch
  • Writing effective minutes
  • Reports
  • User testing.

Contact Frances Gordon for questions about the Simplified courses, including this workshop.


This article is part of 3rd APCOMTEC meeting in Aveiro: