Resources for Better Writing

Plain language improves communication

Mar 29, 2016
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Do you sometimes find your documents and presentations drifting into “HR-speak” (a not-so-distant cousin to “legalese”)? Crowding your message with jargon, euphemisms and buzzwords prevents you from really reaching your audience.

Communication is one of the most important HR competencies—but how well are you actually communicating? Using plain language can help you hit your targets.

Communication is among the top three skills cited as “critical” by business executives in a just-released SHRM survey report titled Using Competencies to Achieve Business Unit Success. It is “the one skill that will help advance your career,” according to Forbes contributor Carmine Gallo in his recent column, “The ‘Core Competency’ Job Candidates Need and Often Lack.” Encouragingly, he added that “anyone can improve this critical career skill.”

For guidance on how to write more clearly and effectively, two online resources stand out: and

Both websites operate from the premise that plain language is “defined by results … easy to read, understand and use.” They provide extensive information and advice to aspiring communicators in every field, including HR, at all career levels, in the public or private sectors, in large organizations or small businesses.

Benefits of Plain Language

When you write or speak in simple, direct—terms, your audience is more likely to understand your messages. Readers and listeners are more apt to act on those messages sooner and without errors or confusion. You won't have to answer as many additional questions, offer supplemental explanations, or issue retractions or corrections. Using plain language saves time, effort and money. Think of it as a form of customer care that makes life easier for all stakeholders, including yourself.

Plain Language Checklists and More

The Center for Plain Language and both apply to corporate and government professionals. They feature a wealth of tips, tools, guidelines, articles and links from sources across the English-speaking world.

The websites provide three valuable quick-reference checklists—“5 steps to plain language,”  “plain-language elements” and “plain English at a glance.” Use them to review your document with these questions in mind:

  • Does the message meet your readers' needs?
  • Is the message clear?
  • Does it use words, sentences, paragraphs and headings effectively?
  • Does it use lists and tables appropriately?
  • Is the spelling and grammar correct?
  • Is it easy to read?

The websites also include materials on:

  • Organizing content logically
  • Writing for the web
  • Suggested word substitutions
  • Avoiding common errors
  • Starting a plain-language program in your organization
  • Connecting to writing consultants and trainers.

Professional Development

Make enhancement of your communication skills a high priority for your day-to-day duties and recertification goals. After all, Communication appears multiple times in the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge: as a stand-alone behavioral competency; as a subcompetency of Leadership & Navigation, Business Acumen and Relationship Management; as a key concept of Consultation; and as part of two functional areas, Employee Engagement & Retention and Technology Management, within the technical competency HR Expertise.


The nonprofit Center for Plain Language educates Congress, business and individuals about the value of clear writing. The Center supports appropriate legislation, such as the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use,” and issues an annual federal report card rating agencies on their compliance with the Act.

The Center's annual ClearMark Awards recognize the best content created by public, private and nonprofit organizations. Its WonderMark Awards publicize the worst writing—but “winners” are encouraged to do better with the chance to receive a TurnAround Award the following year.

The website is developed and maintained by the Plain Language Action and Information Network, a group of federal employees that supports the use of clear communication in government writing. Members sponsor regular informal discussions and offer occasional editing, comment and training services to federal agencies.

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