6. How to say it in plain and simple language

All library information should be written in, or delivered in, plain language. There are lots of excellent guides to writing in plain language available free to download. There are also great courses available at reasonable cost. See the end of this section for details.

This section lists some of the main tips for writing (or speaking) in plain language (Plain English). They are not rules, because writing is not an exact science. Use them as guidance, though, and the public will find it easy to understand what you are saying.

  • Be personal: use words like ‘we’ and ‘you’ wherever you can. This makes your writing more direct and compelling.
  • Active verbs make your writing clearer and less formal. For example, ‘We will write to you soon with details of the event’ is better than ‘details of the event will issue shortly’; ‘we provide information on the EU’ is better than ‘EU information can be sourced here’.
  • Keep sentences short if you possibly can. Fifteen or twenty words are plenty. Depending on what you are communicating, and who you are saying it to, longer sentences are sometimes OK. They should not make more than two points, though, or else your purpose may get lost.
  • Avoid jargon. There’s lots of it in public libraries. Often it is disguised as ordinary words: ‘stock’ and ‘material’ are plain words which have specific meanings in library jargon, for example. What is an ‘issue desk’, anyway? What is an OPAC? It’s fine to use jargon among the staff, but the public may not understand.
  • Avoid foreign expressions. Depending on what you are communicating, and to whom, even common terms, such as ‘i.e.’ and ‘pro rata’, may be unintelligible to some of your target audience.
  • The first time you use them, spell out unfamiliar abbreviations and acronyms – the title of your service, inter-library loans, and so on. You may use them every day, but other people don’t, so they won’t always know what you are talking about.
  • Cut out any unnecessary words and phrases. Keep it simple! ’If there is a fire…’ is easier to understand than ‘in the event of a fire…’; ‘books returned late’ is easier to understand than ‘overdue items’.
  • Use terms consistently. If it’s a ‘plan’, it’s not a ‘strategy’; if it’s a ‘counter’ it’s not an ‘issue desk’.
  • Put the information in the right order. It will help you to get your message across quickly and clearly. Have you put the most important information first? Is your ‘explanatory leaflet’ really explaining anything?
  • Lists can make information easy to understand, but long lists are exhausting to read. Break them up with sub-headings, or highlight the key words with bold text or good use of contrasting colour.
  • Headings and sub-headings can help readers to find their way around a document. Introductions and colour-coding can also help people to navigate through a text.
  • A ‘questions and answers’ or ‘frequently-asked-questions’ format can be good for emphasis. It also lets people go directly to a section that interests them, if they don’t want to read the whole document.

NALA (the National Adult Literacy Agency) has an excellent website at called Simply Put. It contains lots of easy writing and design tips that you can use to make your information easier to understand. It also has an A-Z Guide to Financial Terms, Legal Terms, Citizenship and Social Services.

Simply Put also offers editing support, training and a Plain English Mark for documents that meet international standards.

The UK Plain English Campaign also has very useful information and plain language tools that you can download for free. These include Plain English dictionaries and specialised wordlists which can help you to find alternatives to more complex words and phrases.

Plain English Ireland, a commercial company, offers free access to some useful factsheets, articles and advice through its website. All three organisations also run training programmes of various types and lengths. They all also offer Plain English editing services, and each offers their own accreditation mark for documents which reach acceptable plain language standards. They all charge for these services. See their websites for more details.

Your library reference section includes lots of books like Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and the Penguin and Oxford series of books about writing, so use them!

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