Plain Language standards: A way forward

by Christopher Balmford, Annetta Cheek, Susan Kleimann, Karen Schriver, Lynda Harris 9 minutes read

Published in The Clarity Journal 79 – 2018

The Plain Language Working Group is born – and gets to work

The journey towards this options paper began at the 2007 PLAIN conference in Amsterdam. Three plain language organizations were considering issues, such as whether we should establish international standards for plain language, and what exactly was plain language, anyway. At that time, all we agreed on was that we needed to explore these questions further. The following year, PLAIN, Clarity, and the Center for Plain Language nominated two members each to form what was then called the International Plain Language Working Group. They were joined by six other members representing other countries and languages. The group was chaired by Neil James, who for the following several years was a driving force behind its work.

In 2010, the Working Group published a series of white papers in Clarity (now The Clarity Journal) on a variety of topics important to the international plain language  effort. Christopher Balmford’s article in this issue provides more information  about those papers  and about the draft definition  of plain language  the group adopted. At it’s meeting in Vancouver in 2013, the group officially adopted the definition it uses today.

The standards effort begins

The group met at the Plain Language Association International conference in Graz, Austria, in 2017. We decided that, having adopted a definition of plain language,  we should attempt the next logical step–developing an international standard for plain language. We recognized that this was a huge challenge, given the diversity of languages and viewpoints we would have to accommodate.

The Federation formed a working committee, chaired by former Clarity president Christopher Balmford. The committee decided to seek recognition from the International Organization on Standards (ISO) for any standard we developed. This had the added advantage of pointing the way, in a general manner, to how we need to structure and write the standard, because we will have to follow ISO protocols. The committee further decided to use WCAG 2.1, the web accessibility standards, 2 as a model. For information about ISO and about these decisions, see Christopher’s article in this issue.

As we worked on the first draft, the committee held extensive discussions by email and Skype, and shared multiple drafts with each other. We were also influenced by the other papers in this issue, which were all submitted in response to our request for papers addressing the concept of international plain language standards. We went back to the Clarity 2010 article on standards, where the major discussion was around whether standards should be outcome-based or elements-based. We found that our thinking had evolved in the intervening years to a more integrated approach. Ultimately, we decided to attempt a standard that links high level principles to the definition of plain language cited above, and then develop deeper levels consisting of :

  • guidance
  • techniques, and
  • measures of success, woven in as appropriate.

First draft of a standard, and how you can help

What follows is the committee’s attempt to structure and begin drafting an international standard for plain language, one that we intend to be applicable across languages. The ISO process for adopting a standard in a country provides for making changes to allow for matters that are specific to a language or to a country. We also expect that all languages may well begin to develop best practices to reflect what works within their own language, such as sentence length. Using the international standard as an umbrella, we expect that the plain language community will help us move this preliminary version of Standards 1.0 to iterations of Standards 2.0, Standards 3.0, Standards 4.0, and so on that further reflect guidance and techniques that can work across all languages.

We are seeking advice from the plain language community. We will not be able to develop an international standard without your input. Here are some of the questions we have; doubtless there are many more. Please send us your comments, advice, and questions, and join us in Montreal, Saturday afternoon, October 27, for a plenary session about the standards. You can submit comments by sending them to

Here are some questions we have that you might consider:

Should the standards be written for the writer? Should they be able to be used by others as well, such as those suggested by Karel van der Waarde in his article in this issue?

Should the standards be linked to the definition of plain language, as we have done in the following draft? Should we include extra categories that include the definition and more?

Must we have success criteria for all the techniques? How should we define success?

Should the standards accommodate “thinking” or “planning” elements, such as assessing the rhetorical context, interviewing audience to determine appropriate content or context of use?

Should we address issues around the quality of the content, and how do we set up guidelines for that along with success criteria?

Should the standards address the ethical use or intent of the document?

Should the standards capture the iterative nature of a document development process?

Should we set a standard for the life cycle of a document or the way a document is part of and integrates into a system of documents?

Should we address a document’s web accessibility, and if so how? Or should we rely on WGAC for that?

Should we set standards for assessing the quality of the content through usability testing or other means?

Should we develop standards that allow writers to track their progress over time, over multiple texts (for example, using practices such as benchmarking)?

How should we provide empirical support for our guidelines? Although not all of the guidelines have sufficient research evidence yet, all of them do constitute best practices. Some evidence is already published to support these best practices.3 How should we incorporate that research and update it as more work from different countries in different languages becomes available?

A draft plain language standard based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1




Plain language practitioners have agreed on the following definition of plain language:

A communication is in plain language if the language, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.4

The International Plain Language Federation, following up on its series of 2010 papers,5 is proposing to develop an international standard for plain language that can be applied to most, if not all, languages. We intend to apply to ISO for recognition of the standard. Furthermore, we are modelling our standard after that for web accessibility, WCAG 2.1, which has been approved by ISO.6


This document is an early draft for demonstration purposes only.


[To be developed]


Layers of guidance

Principles At the top are four principles that provide the foundation for plain language:

  • The content is what the reader needs or wants.
  • The reader can easily find the content he needs or wants.
  • The reader can understand the content.
  • The reader can use the content.

Guidelines Under the principles are guidelines. The guidelines provide the basic goals that authors should work toward to ensure their products are in plain language.

Techniques, examples, and underlying thinking Under the guidelines, we set out techniques that writers can follow to make sure their writing or design meets the guidelines. Sometimes, we support the techniques with examples and short pieces of instructional material.

Success criteria [For some guidelines we could have success criteria but perhaps not for all. We will work on this issue once we are able to work with experts at Standards Australia.]

Mandatory or advisory — Standards need to say for each element of the standard whether that element is mandatory or not — the technical terms are “mandatory,” “normative,” and “informative.” We will keep this thought in mind but make that call on each guideline at a later stage and with input from the experts at Standards Australia.


Principle 1 The content is what the reader needs or wants

Guideline 1.1 Content clearly states the purpose of the document in terms of  reader end goals. (Focus is on how content helps/assists/informs/ allows reader to do something instead of what the writer (or the organization) wants to tell the reader)

Guideline 1.2 Content reflects the primary reader demographic and task profile. (Focus is on how content is aimed at a particular reader)

Lynda Harris Write Ltd (NZ)

Lynda is founder of Write Limited, New Zealand’s leading plain English communications company. Write’s main focus is helping government, commercial, and professional organiza- tions get more value from their daily investment in business communication.

Lynda established the WriteMark, New Zealand’s document quality mark, and is the author of Rewrite

— how to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit. She is the founder of New Zealand’s annual Plain English Awards and has been a guest judge for the US ClearMark Awards.

In 2015 Lynda was awarded the Mowat Plain Language Achievement Award — an international award rec- ognizing an outstanding contribution to advancing the cause of plain language.

Lynda is the New Zealand representative for Clarity International and a member of the International Plain Language Federation’s working group on developing plain language standards.

Technique: 1.2.1. Construct scenarios of use for key readers to identify key tasks and purpose of those tasks

Technique 1.2.2. Construct personas for key readers to identify variations in audience demographics and circumstances

Technique 1.2.3. Construct context of use profiles for key readers to identify physical and emotional circumstances for use of the content

Technique 1.2.4. Conduct review of literature to identify characteristics of readers and information needs

Technique 1.2.5. Conduct qualitative research (interviews, surveys) to identify baseline information needs of audience

Guideline 1.3         [Etc]

Principle 2 The reader can easily find the content they need or want

Guideline 2.1           Organization of the document reflects the reader’s needs [Grouping; related ideas are together or cross-referenced]

[Sequencing: The most important information to the reader comes first]

Guideline 2.2           Organization of the document is logical and consistent [Logic]


Guideline 2.3           Headings are informative, clear, logical, and consistent

Underlying thinking Consider these 3 types of headings:

  • topic headings (for example, Listing jurisdiction) are usually serviceable — as long as they are meaningful to the reader;
  • question headings (for example, Listing in Australia or Singapore?) have energy, objectivity/disinterest, they invite the reader into the document; and
  • descriptive headings (for example, Why you should list the company in Singapore) help your reader, they contain information that gives the reader a handle on the material in the body text. Before the reader starts reading the body text, they have a clear idea of what it covers.

Technique 2.3.1 Informative

Headings need to do more than name the content that appears beneath them — rather, they need to convey some of the substance of that content.


Listing jurisdictionListing in Australia or Singapore?Why you should list the company in Singapore

It’s more important for a heading to be clear, logical, consistent, and informative than for a heading to be short.

Technique 2.3.2 Clear

[To be developed]

Technique 2.3.3 Logical

[To be developed]

Technique 2.3.4 Consistent

[To be developed]

Technique 2.3.5 [Etc]

Guideline 2.4           Headings clearly signal all changes in topic and accurately describe the nature of the material they head

Technique 2.4.1 Headings signal all changes in topic

Create a new heading (at one level or another) every time you start writing about a new idea or topic. That might mean you have a heading every paragraph or two.

Underlying thinking If you’re thinking something like “a heading every few paragraphs or so sounds like way too many headings to me,” then ask yourself “Is it the writer in you that’s worried about using too many headings or is it the reader?”

If it’s the writer, then maybe you are writing for yourself — or to the mirror — rather than for your reader.

(Have you as a reader — reading a document you had nothing to do with writing etc. — ever thought, “This document has too many headings?”)

Technique 2.4.2 Headings accurately describe the  material they head

Never allow information to appear under a heading that doesn’t accurately cover the information previewed in the heading. It’s this discipline that often leads to a document having a heading every paragraph or so (see Technique 2.4.1).

Technique 2.4.3 [Etc]

Guideline 2.5           Design techniques and graphics contribute to the reader’s ability to find desired material

Technique 2.5.1 Does the format and design support the reader’s need to see, process, and use the content they need?

Technique 2.5.2 Does the design use techniques such as proximity, prominence, sequence, and similarity to underscore meaning?

Technique 2.5.3 [Etc]

Guideline 2.6           [Etc]

Principle 3 The reader can understand the content

Guideline 3.1           [Etc]

Principle 4 The reader can use the content

Guideline 4.1           [Etc]

Karen  Schriver KSA Communication Design & Research (USA)

Dr. Schriver is President of KSA Communication Design & Research, a consultancy focused on making complex information clear, compel- ling, and usable. She applies research on information design, plain language, and cognitive science to design everyday communications. Her book, Dynamics in Document Design: Creat-

ing Texts for Readers—in its 9th printing—has been cited as an essential work

in writing and visual design. Recipient of 13 national and international awards for her research, Schriver has made a significant impact on how information designers and plain language advocates think about their work. She is currently writing a new book on evidence-based information design and plain language.


  1. http://www.clarity- uploads/2015/05/Clarity-no- 64-bookmarked1.pdf
  2. WCAG21/
  3. Kimble, J. (2012). Writing for dollars, writing to please: The case for plain language in business, government, and law. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press. Schriver, K.

A. (2017, Dec.). Plain language in the United States gains momentum: 1940–2015. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 60(4), 343–383.


http://www.clarity- uploads/2015/05/Clarity-no- 64-bookmarked1.pdf standardisation-guides.


This section is normative

document a written communication in any form

informative for information purposes and not required for conformance

normative required for conformance

Note 1 One may conform in a variety of well-defined ways to this document.

Note 2 Content identified as “informative” or “non-normative” is never required for conformance.

reader the audience for a document or other communication. Reader includes user.

writer People or organizations who create texts, graphics, webpages, PowerPoints, and so on.