Write in plain language
We do the hard work to make content simple for people to understand.
Aim for an 8th grade reading level or lower. Keep sentences short and simple. Use smaller, more common words.
We recommend an 8th grade reading level because:
- It lets people read with less effort.
- Kids who translate English content for their non-English-speaking parents can do this more easily.
- Translation into other languages is more accurate at this reading level.
There's even a plain language requirement in state law.
Why this is important
19% of Californians say they speak English “less than very well.” 44% of Californians over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home.
Plain language lets people read with less effort. It reduces frustration and makes it easier for people to access services. People also trust information that’s easy to understand.
It also reduces the workload of state staff. Examples include less:
- Phone calls
- In-person appointments
- Data collection errors
How to do this in your writing
Check reading levels with the Hemingway Editor. Eliminate very-hard-to-read sentences and minimize hard-to-read sentences. Check the reading level every time you edit content.
- Use simple words.
- Your content still needs to be accurate. Do not sacrifice clarity for simplicity.
- Explain jargon when you have to use it. This includes proper nouns and government-centric terms.
- When using an acronym, spell out its full name first, followed by the acronym in parentheses. Afterwards, use just the acronym.
- If the name only appears once on the page, do not include the acronym.
- If an acronym is better known to your audience than the full name (like CDC), use the acronym only. When in doubt, spell out the full name.
- Tell people what they need to do instead of telling them what happens if they do not do something. It's easier for them to understand.
- For example, write You must apply by February 10 instead of If you do not apply by February 10, your application will not be accepted.
- One way to avoid this is by removing double negatives.
- Use active voice and strong verbs.
- Do not use hidden verbs.
- Do not use gerunds with is or are. A gerund is a verb that ends in -ing.
- For example: write He helps instead of He is helping.
- Write in present tense.
- When using it, this, those, and these, double check to make sure it’s clear what the pronoun refers to.
- Do not use directional references like as above.
- Write out or abbreviate months in dates instead of using numbers. Some cultures interpret 9/5 as May 9 instead of September 5.
- Use numerals instead of spelling out numbers.
- Only go to one decimal place. Only use decimals when you need to.
- Use commas in numbers over 999. This helps people understand the order of magnitude.
- Use the serial comma (also called the Oxford comma) to reduce confusion. It’s the comma that comes before and in a list of 3 or more.
- For example: We brought apples, bananas, and oranges.
The Office of Data and Innovation has more plain language resources in their service delivery toolkit.