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Write for your audience

One of the most popular plain language myths is that you have to “dumb down” your content so that everyone can read it. That’s not true.

The first rule of plain language is: write for your audience. Use language your audience understands and feels comfortable with. Take your audience’s current level of knowledge into account. Don’t write for an 8th-grade class if your audience is composed of PhD candidates, small business owners, working parents, or immigrants. Only write for 8th graders if your audience is, in fact, an 8th-grade class.

Know the expertise and interest of your average reader, and write to that person. Don’t write to the experts, the lawyers, or your management, unless they are your intended audience.

Make sure you do your research to understand who your audience is and test your assumptions.

Focus on what users want to know

Let’s face it, people only want to know what applies to them. The best way to grab and hold someone’s attention is to figure out who they are and what they want to know. Put yourself in their shoes; it will give you a new perspective.

Tell your audience why the material is important to them. Say, “If you want a research grant, here’s what you have to do.” Or, “If you want to mine federal coal, here’s what you should know.” Or, “If you’re planning a trip to Rwanda, read this first.”

Guide them through the information

Think about what your audience knows about the situation or topic you’re writing about. Then, guide them through the information they need to know. To help you do this, try answering the following questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What does my audience already know about the subject?
  • What does my audience need to know?
  • What questions will my audience have?
  • What’s the best outcome for my agency? What do I need to say to get this outcome?
  • What’s the best outcome for our audience? What do I need to say to get this outcome?


  • Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 93-96.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 9.