Kim Garwood
Kim Garwood

She’s the manager of writing services in the U of G library’s learning and curriculum support team. But when it comes to plain language, Kim Garwood is all about the reader, not the writer.

Plain language involves writing and presenting information in a way that readers can understand and use, says Garwood. She studied the topic for her PhD completed this past spring at the University of Waterloo.

An English BA grad from Guelph, she acknowledges a difference between plain language and, say, literary writing or language shared by members of a specific group.

But for most communications – including back-to-school writing for students, faculty and staff — there’s plenty of room to make writing more clear and comprehensible. Think about insurance documents or credit card agreements, she says. “It’s almost written as though they don’t expect you to read it.”

Often a consumer gives up on reading a document entirely, with all the “buyer-beware” risk that entails. One software company’s April Fool’s joke saw almost 90 per cent of customers agree to terms of service that included selling their souls to the company. “It’s a funny example, but the truth is, most of us are going on faith when it comes to these things.”

Use plain language in writing your essays, reports, proposals and even emails, says Garwood, and you will more likely gain your intended effect on your professor or TA, your research collaborator or your funding prospect. Besides improving understanding, clear communications can save time and money, she says.

That’s an incentive for any researcher hoping to see their work turned into a new product or service, policy or action. Students might not be aiming to save time or money, but plain language might help them understand their material better — and earn them higher grades on essays.

Often, Garwood and her colleagues see students trying too hard to impress their instructors. “Students think they need to write complicated, convoluted prose in order to appear to know what they’re talking about. A sign of understanding is explaining it so that someone else understands it.”

Convoluted writing might even become a social justice issue if it prevents people from exercising legal or political rights, says Garwood. “It’s disempowering,” she says. “What’s frustrating for me is that readers don’t have a choice. It’s about more than just writing. It’s about making sure our language is a bridge, not a barrier.”

In 2010, United States President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act requiring federal agencies to use clear information that the public can understand and use. Federal guidelines ( cover five broad subject areas: thinking about your audience; organizing your ideas; writing your document; writing for online readers; and testing your documents.

Plain language is less about strict rules and more about being conscious of your reader and what information they’re looking for. That lesson came out for Garwood in teaching English-as-a-second-language students who often stumble over idioms familiar to native-born speakers. “I realize how much language is turn of phrase or short-hand.”

Among her suggestions:

  • Know your audience. Think about your readers as individuals rather than a mass.
  • Ask someone to comment on your work before sharing it with your intended readers.
  • Organize your document. Does your writing flow from one idea to the next and help readers move from known to new information?
  • Be selective. Aim to convey two or three key messages rather than 10.
  • Get to the point. What’s this document for and what do you expect the reader to do with it?
  • Make one point at a time. Write short sentences that express a single idea.
  • Be direct. Use “I” and “you.”
  • Use action verbs. Avoid using bland verbs such as make, do, have and give. And avoid nouns ending in –ion, -ment, -ance and –ive.
  • Use familiar words. Instead of “commence,” say “begin” or “start.” Not “prior to” but “before.” Not “utilize” but “use.”
  • Use a word instead of a phrase. Instead of “a number of,” why not say “many”? Rather than “at this point in time,” write “now.” And replace “in order to” with “to.”

Rather than try to impress the reader, she says, “Try to empathize with them. What can you do as a writer to make it as easy as possible for them to understand and use this document?”

For online training in the topic, you can check the “Plain Train.” That project was led by Cheryl Stephens, co-founder of the Plain Language Association International.

Garwood also recommends the book Verbal Hygiene by Deborah Cameron.

Writing Services is located in the Learning Commons on the main floor of the McLaughlin Library. With four full-time staff, 10 graduate student writing assistants and 10 undergrad writing peers, the unit sees more than 7,000 students a year in individual consultations and workshops.