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In an earlier post, ELL members discussed the value of writing answers in simpler language.
I looked at some recent answers and comments, and I think that ELL still needs to work harder to give learners a better experience. Many answers include styles of writing that are more difficult to understand than the simplest way to explain the same ideas.
I notice two kinds of writing that I think we should avoid.
One of them is formal, academic, and literary styles of writing. Many people who give answers on ELL have strong educations. But learners all have different backgrounds, and everyone begins to learn from the simplest words, phrases, and rules. It is easy to forget that the way we often write is more advanced than other ways that explain the same ideas, but are less difficult for the reader.
Let me give you an example. A scholar might explain an idea in the following way:
Historically there has a been a long-standing debate about whether X or Y is the preferred option for case Z, but the consensus has now crystallized to such a degree that X is considered to be obligatory.
Many who are learning English cannot understand this example well. We should try to write it differently, by making the language simpler. We can do so in a few ways. First, we can break the sentence into several smaller ones. Also, we can change some words to ones that are more basic and common. Finally, we can use an active voice in the second person.
Many who are skilled in writing in a formal style realize that they can use it to express very difficult and exact ideas in a beautiful way. It is important that they remember that they can learn how to express many of the same ideas in plain language,
The other kind of writing that I think we should avoid is vernacular and idiomatic styles. Most learners study some idioms, but may have difficulty understanding many others. Idioms change so much over time and are so different from place to place. It may surprise you how hard it often is to understand all of the idioms you may use when you speak to your friends. Think about the most common idioms in English that you hear from people born at all different times and living in all different countries. We should try to avoid any others.
When you speak to friends, many words you say have meanings different from the definitions of the same words that you find in the dictionary. You may say something like the following:
You can probably get away with Y, but that's a bit on the old-fashioned side, so you might want to just play it safe and go with X. This assumes that you are talking about Z.
In the first sentence of this example, you may notice words that might make the reader ask questions. Why is someone trying to "get away" instead of trying to "go away"? Does "old fashioned" refer to the clothes my grandmother wore? Who is going to "play" something, and what is it? A game? An instrument? How can I "go with X"? Would I carry it? Where would I take it?
You might try find reasons by yourself why a learner might have problems reading last sentence.
This example has another problem besides the idioms. The text has many pieces, but does not organize them in a nice order, or explain how they fit together. The text shows how the writer thought about the ideas, but not how the reader would have the least difficulty to understand them. This problem is common in vernacular language.
Vernacular language is how we speak when someone expects us to say something without taking much time to think about it. When a writer does not think about problems for the reader carefully enough to prevent them, the text is often easier to write than to read. We may speak in vernacular language, but we should plan and edit our writing thoughtfully.
How might we improve on writing answers, to help learners better?
We should write answers in plain language.
When writing in plain language, we think carefully about how to explain an idea in a way that makes it easiest for the reader to understand it. If we try to explain an idea in one way, but then find a simpler or clearer way, we change what we already wrote to make the result better for the reader.
We do not change the idea itself to be simpler, or treat the readers as though they are not smart. Instead, we choose the simplest and clearest language that explains an idea, and that makes it least likely that some problem interpreting the language would cause the reader not to recognize the idea.
An example is the following:
In case Z, you must write X. (A long time ago, people sometimes wrote Y instead, but do not much anymore.)
The example also has a trick that helps the reader. Parentheses make it easier to understand which part of the text is most important, even if the reader does not understand all of the language. When the reader sees items that are not words, but give some of the same information, the reader is more likely to understand the idea. The visual items also work with the reader's' memory, by connecting information that the reader already understands to skills the reader is still learning.
Although we should write in plain language, the exact choices we make should depend on the question and its author. An advanced topic has many details, so we may want to use more advanced words and grammar to write about it. Since this kind of topic usually interests someone who already understands English well, we have more freedom when we write about it.
If you have never written in plain language, then it may feel difficult in the beginning. But writing in plain language helps you to understand a language better than before, especially your native language, because it makes you think carefully about many of the assumptions and biases that affect the way you use the language. When you apply what you have learned to your speech or other writing, you may find new ways to use the language that you like better than your old ways.
In 2010, the United States government created rules for using plain language in official documents. It now maintains a web site with guides and other information for writing in plain language. The content is released into the public domain, so you may use it however you want without copyright restrictions. A private company called the Plain English Campaign also provides cost-free guides on the same subject, but you must check the copyright restrictions if you want to make copies.
One important part of writing in plain language is using a style suitable for a particular class of readers. Remember that some text in plain language is not suitable for early learners. When you write for learners, you must remember who they are, while you try to follow the advice from guides.