TechWhirl Fast 5: Understanding Plain Language and Simplified Technical English

Following a successful presentation to STC Phoenix on Plain Language and Simplified Technical English, NAU Senior Lecturer Erika Konrad and alumna Karen Field Carroll joined TechWhirl for a Fast 5 discussion on what’s happening with these two global trends, and how they can impact tech comm and other content professionals.

1.  What is the difference between Plain Language (PL) and Simplified Technical English (STE)?

While both movements have clearer writing and communications as a goal, STE is a rules-based specification for writing clear procedures, and includes a dictionary of approved terms to reduce ambiguity. Erika notes that the specification also includes 52 rules, which are revised every three years.

PL guidelines provide some “wiggle room” for organizations looking to adopt them. It gained its foothold in 2010, with passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, and requires that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” Karen, who’s now a consultant for companies looking to implement PL, says organizations outside of Federal agencies are achieving strong results with PL implementations.

2.  How can tech/professional writers take advantage of PL guidelines in their work?

Karen advises her clients, and other organizations considering PL implementation to consider several factors. First, the organization needs to determine how formally they want to approach plain language adoption. Second, they should conduct an independent assessment of existing documentation, which will reveal how authors may be struggling with grammar basics, or which areas or types of documentation should be prioritized first. Other key factors in planning and implementation are aligning education and training on PL with the organizational culture, and developing a testing plan for the documentation.

3.  How can tech/professional writers benefit from knowing STE principles? How can they take advantage for their work?

In explaining the benefits of working with STE, Erika starts with an example from the classroom on word usage. “I’ll ask my students, ‘does it have more than one meaning?’ If it does then applying STE principles to the document will result in clearer content.” She also refers to the Plain Language Act, and the underlying studies of consumer “burden hours,” the time spent in trying to understand and complete government forms and procedures. Reducing burden hours is a significant benefit both in government and the commercial sector.

4.  What research shows that PL and STE are effective?

Government-based research is fairly plentiful, but statistics for the business world are a bit harder to come by. Erika uncovered some academic research in the form of a thesis by a Swedish student. Karen Disborg analyzed technical documentation from Swedish export companies using the Flesch Reading Ease formula. She compared technical documentation created with STE against documentation without controlled language and found much more favorable scoring with STE documents, which also were found to be easier to translate and to produce.

Erika also referenced a highly regarded study of the UK/Canada passport application process. Prior to PL conversion, only 52% of respondents could complete the process successfully. Following application of PL guidelines, 97% were able to complete it correctly. And the estimated savings just on the administration side of the process was 37,000 man hours per year.

5. What are implementation factors to consider for PL and STE?

Karen finds that several key areas need to be considered when planning a PL implementation:

  • Conduct a documentation assessment: the sample set should include documents of varying types (or “mini-genres”) and purposes, and documents authored by different writers.
  • Consider the assessment findings when laying out the approach to audience analysis and document design: plan for deep dives into analyzing both sentence and paragraph structuring, as well as use of headings to organize and navigate. Determine how style factors such as the use of jargon may be impacted by audience types.
  • Thoroughly test documentation produced under the new PL program: plan to use both subjective and objective measures that tie to the audiences.
  • Allow for significant training time for authoring teams and other stakeholders.

Remember that from a cost perspective, training accounts for the largest share of the implementation budget.

Bonus question 1: What are some low-tech tools for improving your simplified English in your documents?

Erika pointed out that many writers enjoy reading the dictionary, and probably have one or more reputable dictionaries at hand or use a free online dictionary. Those that don’t can easily and inexpensively invest in this low-tech resource. Reading the STE dictionary of approved terms is equally entertaining and completely free of charge.

Moving up the tech scale, Microsoft Word (and other word processing tools) incorporate several easy-to-use functions such as search-and-replace, spell checking. and grammar checking. Used in combination with other resources found on and other sites, lone writers and small teams have some inexpensive ways to jump on the PL and STE bandwagons. Follow the STE rules for procedures (such as using the imperative voice for instructions and including articles like “the”). And Karen added that “using your brain” is also a good tool for both PL an STE. “Once you grasp the concepts, they become more intuitive, and writers become more productive as time goes on.”

Bonus question 2: How to use simplified English for different target audiences?

Erika suggests that using both STE and PL works across different target audiences, particularly in areas where they overlap, like avoiding the use of passive voice as much as possible. She looks at plain language for overall guidance on writing descriptive and procedural content, and considers the rules of STE to help clarify information at the word level.

Bonus question 3: Plain language Law — also for non-English US Docs?

Erika and Karen followed up after our talk with additional resources on plain language initiatives, including what’s going on with other languages around the world.


Here’s another low-tech app for analyzing sentences for length:

Simplified Technical English

Plain Language

Check out Karen’s website:

  • Definitions of plain language by various experts
  • Links to laws and bills on PL
  • Links to PL organizations
  • Links to the Federal Plain Language Guidelines and the SEC Guidelines

For more information on the NAU professional writing programs visit

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