Using Plain Language in Proposals

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In an advertisement during the talk radio program of a prominent national figure, a youth development organization described its “evidence-based practices for engaging at-risk youth.” The advertisement proceeded to use other jargon and field-related terminology to describe its activities and ultimately succeeded in wasting a valuable promo spot because it did not clearly communicate its services with listeners.

This organization is not alone in its inability to portray in common language its purpose and activities to those unfamiliar with its services. Experts in the field may be reading our grant proposals, but more often than not, the readers are not acquainted with our services. It is the grant writer’s responsibility to provide descriptions enabling readers to understand what the program is about.

In doing so, grant writers can take a lesson from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In an effort to clearly communicate health information to the public, the NIH supports the federal government’s Plain Language initiative. According to NIH,

“Plain language is grammatically correct language that includes complete sentence structure and accurate word usage. Plain language is not unprofessional writing or a method of “dumbing down” or “talking down” to the reader. Writing that is clear and to the point helps improve communication and takes less time to read and understand. Clear writing tells the reader exactly what the reader needs to know without using unnecessary words or expressions. Communicating clearly is its own reward and saves time and money. It also improves reader response to messages. Using plain language avoids creating barriers that set us apart from the people with whom we are communicating.”

The NIH web page titled “Clear Communication: An NIH Health Literacy Initiative” @ http://www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/plainlanguage.htm, notes “the hallmarks that characterize plain language include the use of common, everyday words (except for necessary technical terms); use of personal pronouns; the active voice; logical organization; and easy-to-read and understandable features, such as bullets and tables.”

These are specific tips NIH offers writers:

1. Engage the Reader.

• First, consider who the reader is. Often, there is more than one reader.
• Consider what the reader needs to know. Organize content to answer the reader’s questions.
• Write for the appropriate reading level.
2. Write Clearly. Use common, everyday words whenever possible

Word Choices:

o Use common, everyday words
o Use other personal pronouns such as “you”
o Use “must” instead of “shall”
o Avoid using undefined technical terms
o Use positive rather than negative terms
o Avoid using gender-specific terminology
o Avoid long strings of nouns

Verb Forms:

o Use active voice
o Use action verbs
o Use the present tense

Structure:

o Use parallel construction
o Be direct
o Avoid using unnecessary exceptions
3. Display Material Correctly.

Appearance is an important aspect of clear communication. If a document is pleasing to the eye, it will be more likely to attract your reader’s attention.

Appearance can also be an aid to the reader, improving comprehension and retention. There are four main aspects of appearance:

  • Organization. Strong, logical organization includes an introduction followed by short sentences and paragraphs. Organize messages to respond to reader interests and concerns.
  • Introduction. In lengthier documents, use an introduction and a table of contents to help the reader understand how a document is organized.
  • Short sentences and paragraphs. Sentence length should average 15-20 words. Sentences that are simple, active, affirmative, and declarative hold the reader’s interest. Generally, each paragraph should contain only one topic. A series of paragraphs may be used to express complex or highly technical information. The more writing deviates from a clear and to-the-point structure, the harder it will be for the reader to understand what is being conveyed.
  • Layout. Layout includes margins, headings, and white space. Provide white space between sections to break up text and to make it easier for readers to understand. Use headings to guide the reader; the question-and-answer format is especially helpful. Try to anticipate the reader’s questions and pose them as the reader would. Use adequate margins.
  • Tables. Tables make complex information readily understandable. Tables can help the reader see relationships more easily. They may require fewer words than straight text.
  • Typography. Typography relates to fronts and typographical elements used for emphasis, such as bullets or italics.

4. Evaluate Your Document.

To ensure that you are communicating clearly, evaluate the document or have another person read it and offer suggestions for clarification. Look over the document for:
  • Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation;
  • Inclusion of appropriate devices, such as dating, page numbering, and consistency;
  • Visual appeal;
  • Consistency and effectiveness of layout and typographical devices (avoid overuse); and
  • Line breaks that inadvertently separate part of a name or date in a way that reduces clarity.
Click here to see an illustration of NIH’s Plain Language initiative.

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