Jan 05

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Making a plain language version of an existing document

Faced with a long and convoluted document which needs improvement (for example, a financial agreement, a letter of advice, or a set of instructions), how do you go about creating a plain English version?

One option is to re-write it from scratch – this is worthwhile when the whole structure needs changing, as it sometimes does. For instance, a detailed set of instructions might turn out to make more sense as a short list of principles, perhaps with a few examples for guidance.

Another option is simply cutting out words with a liberal use of red pen.  This is easy to do, but hard to achieve a good result with.  Unless you read the final product carefully, you can easily end up with a stilted feel to the writing – short sentences full of complicated words aren’t necessarily any better than long sentences full of complicated words. By all means do this though if you’ve got time to be really careful.

In between these two extremes is where most of the work happens.  Leaving the structure largely in place, each clause or paragraph is inspected for what it is really trying to say.  Then that message is reconstructed in plainer language.

However you do it, you need to look at the “before” and “after” versions to make sure you’ve got it just right.  Ideally, get someone else to look at it as well for a second and more impartial opinion. Here are some useful questions to ask yourself when reviewing:

  1. Does the new wording convey the point made in the original version?  Would it make sense to a lay person?
  2. Does the new version make sense in just one reading?
  3. Does any of the new wording strike you as inaccurate, ambiguous, or incomplete?
  4. Is the new version actually an improvement over the original, or does it need more work?

Do you have any other questions or guidelines you use when reviewing a new version?

Permanent link to this article: http://wordsmadeclear.com/2012/01/05/making-a-plain-language-version-of-an-existing-document/


  1. Cheryl Stephens

    Usually, I have to edit the document to put it in standard English–changing words, breaking up ling sentences, correcting grammar, and all.

    Then I reread to make sure that I do understand the meaning. If not, I ask questions to get clarity.

    Then I restructure and rewrite.

    Then reread, revise, and try it out on the nearest person.

    That usually works for me.

    1. Carley

      You really found a way to make this whole process easier.

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