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Plain English: At a Glance

By Nancy M. Smith, former Director, SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Assistance, and Ann D. Wallace, former Senior Counsel to the Director, Division of Corporation Finance

Plain English means creating a document that is:

  • visually inviting,
  • logically organized, and
  • understandable on the first reading.

How do you create a plain English document?

  • Know your audience
  • Know what you need to say
  • Organize your material logically
  • Avoid repetition

Use these tools to write clearly:

  • Active voice with strong verbs
  • Short sentences
  • Personal pronouns
  • Concrete, familiar words
  • No surplus words
  • No legal jargon
  • Tabular presentation of complex information, and
  • Use a design and layout that increase comprehension.

Design and layout

Number of characters in a line

Once you go beyond 65 characters in a line, readers have great difficulty reading at their normal speed. You may want to switch to another layout that makes your document easy to read.

Justifying margins

Justifying the right hand margin decreases readability because it causes the eye to stop at irregular spacing between words. Justifying means making the margins flush. This document has a justified left margin, and an unjustified, or ragged, right margin.

Capitalizing sentences

It’s very difficult to read sentences in all capital letters because it’s unnatural and the normal visual cues are missing. A short header is readable in all caps, but anything more strains the reader. Consider these other methods to highlight important information: boxing the information, changing type size or font, using italics, or a light screen.

Use descriptive headers

You increase readability by using headers that specifically describe the sections of your documents. Your reader absorbs information more quickly and easily, and understands its relationship to other information, if you use headers. The headers can then become a table of contents that communicates information more effectively to the reader.

Break up dense copy

If dense copy fills a page, you increase the chances that your reader will become discouraged. Give your reader a visual and mental break by using shorter paragraphs and headers.

Use white space

Although cost may dictate how much white space you can use to open up your document and make it easier to read, make use of the white space you currently have. If you have a page where the text ends in the middle, ask yourself if you could have used a bigger type size and headers more effectively.