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How researchers can use plain language

Researchers want people to take part in our online research, understand the questions we ask and feel motivated to answer those questions carefully.

Unfortunately, too often, few of the people who receive a survey invitation actually respond; so did they understand what to do? And too many of those who complete it do so quickly: so did our participants really read and understand the questions they answered?

What makes this difficult is that once the survey has been sent, it is out of the researcher’s hands. The survey needs to be engaging and understandable at first glance.

One effective way to make our surveys more engaging and understandable is to write them in plain language.

What is plain language?
As defined by the International Plain Language Federation ‘A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.’

The plain language principles
The plain language community has developed several plain language principles and guidelines. We have summarised them into three categories:

  1. Use words that your intended audience understands
  2. Use a clear and logical structure
  3. Design for readability

More on each of these below.

1. Use words that your intended audience can understand
This means avoiding jargon and ‘work voice’. Jargon is the technical language used in specialised fields. For example, the term ‘wellness journey’ might be used by marketers and researchers working in health, but rarely if ever by anyone else. Work voice is the corporate language some people use at work but would not use when talking to friends and family. An example from a recent survey that was sent to members of the general public: ‘survey expiration date’.

Knowing whether you are writing in the language your audience understands can be difficult because the research and client team may disagree on what is jargon or work voice and what isn’t. This can be made worse if no preliminary investigative research is available.

As a guide, the most important words in the International Plain Language Federation’s definition of plain language are ‘the intended audience’. If your survey is for surgeons, then you can write in a language that surgeons understand. If your survey is with patients of surgeons, then write in a language that patients would understand. And, as it says in the definition, understand it ‘the first time’.

In a sense it is easy to write for a specialised audience like surgeons. They tend to be similar in education, knowledge and background.  The challenge comes when we try to write for the general public – and the greatest challenge is when we want to ask the general public a survey question about a specialised topic where it can be tempting to slip into some jargon. A tip to help you here – a rule of thumb when writing for the general public is to write as if you were writing for someone in Year 7.

For all audiences, plain language writers also do these:

  • Use everyday words for everyday things – use ‘start’ not ‘commence’ for example.
  • Make ‘you’  the subject of the sentence:  Say ‘You have until  DATE to complete this survey’ rather than ‘the survey completion DATE is ‘
  • Avoid negatives. Sentences with negatives such as ‘not’ or ‘never’ take longer for our brains to process and are often misread.

2.  Use a clear and logical structure
Plain language is about more than the words. It is also about the way the information or argument is organised.

  • Be logical – for example if you want people to take a series of steps, mention the first step first.
  • Use headings so readers can clearly see what information is where.
  • Use bold so people can find the things they need to do – such as key dates, and specific instructions – but use it sparingly.

3. Design your document for readability
Only the most motivated people will read dense blacks of text.  Readers are likely to skip over survey instructions or survey questions that have any of these:

  • Long sentences
  • Long paragraphs
  • Cramped formatting.

So instead keep sentence length to under 20 words and use bulleted and numbered lists.  Also use a lot of white space.  White space in a written document helps the reader to see information. It also helps them to process it. It’s the written equivalent of taking a breath.

One way to check readability is to use a readability test like Flesch Kincaid. The Flesch–Kincaid readability score was developed for the U.S. Navy to help them write technical documentation that could be easily understood. 

Readability calculators are available online. We did this for this article and this is the result.

  • Reading  Level: 10th – 12th  Grade
  • Average Words per Sentence: 11.7
  • Average Syllables per Word: 1.6. [1]

Most of the time when we send out a survey or screener, we only get one go at it – once that email invitation or survey has gone out, that’s it. There is no going back. We may never know if they understood the questions or not.  What we can do though is follow the plain language principles: use words your intended audience understands, write in a logical order and design for readability.

Authors: Susan Bell, Susan Bell Research and Jane Gregory, Professional Standards Officer, The Research Society

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