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Library & Knowledge Services: Plain Language

“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”

- About [plain language]. (n.d.) Retrieved from

Video: What is plain language?

Editors Canada (2018, June 27). What is plain language?

Why plain language?

“When someone is ill, anxious or in pain, being able to access and understand health information may be difficult, even if the person's literacy skills are generally high.

Plain language offers the most benefit to the 49% of Canadian adults with low literacy skills. If your audience is "the public," plain language writing will help you get your message to this segment of the population.”

- Canadian Public Health Association. (n.d.) Plain language service.

Plain language @ PHSA

Adapted from: Five steps to plain language. (n.d.) Center for Plain Language.

Plain language process

Who is your reader?

If you want your reader to understand your document, understand your reader.


  • Personal traits, like age, gender, physical and mental abilities and disabilities, emotional state
  • Cultural traits: language, family structure, biases, sensitivities, first language
  • Knowledge, skills, and abilities: education, literacy, numeracy, knowledge of this topic, previous misinformation.

These traits can affect the way your reader experiences your document.

Diverse readers may use your documents. Consider each reader type. Plan your document for the reader that will need the most help.

- Source: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC:

An empathy map can help you explore who your readers are. Start with the Updated Empathy Map Canvas from Dave Grey (2017).

What must your reader know or do?

What is your document’s:

  • Single most important thing (SMIT) for your reader to know?
  • Bottom line actionable message (BLAM) that your reader needs so that they can act? 

- Source: Hospital for Sick Children Learning Institute’s Plain Language Checklist  (2017).

Your document’s structure (the order of your points) depends on:

  • Who your reader is, and
  • What your reader must know or do.

Break your information into chunks

Example: You are preparing to send a child home with a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC). You are writing a document for their parents. This document will tell parents how to take care of their child's PICC.

Your document might include information about:

  • Parts of the PICC
  • What to watch out for (problems)
  • Information about their child's PICC (length, size)
  • Who to call with questions or problems
  • How to keep the PICC safe, and
  • 'Always carry an extra clamp'

Put the chunks into a logical order for your reader

You could choose this structure:

1.     ‘Always carry an extra clamp’: You need parents to do this all the time. This change is essential. It requires an immediate behaviour change.

2.     Who to call if they have a question or problem: Put this somewhere easy to find, like the front page.

3.     Information about their child’s PICC (length, size): The parent will need this information if they call with a question or a problem.

4.     Parts of the catheter: Parents must know the parts to understand the next section.

5.     What to watch out for (problems).

6.     How to keep the catheter safe: These are everyday or regular tasks. The parent will revisit the document until they learn these processes.

Give each chunk a heading

You can use a:

·       Question: What must I watch out for?

·       Description: Problems to watch out for

·       Simple phrase: Watch out for these problems

Use 1 or 2 levels of headings. For example:

A. What should I watch out for?

  • Dressing lifting off

What to do:

  • Put a dressing on top of the dressing that is lifting off.

How to avoid it

  • Keep the dressing clean and dry. A little bleeding at the exit site is normal for the first few days.
  • Loose or cracked cap

You may notice:

  • The cap is loose of off.
  • Fluid or blood leaks from the cap.


- Source: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC:


Write what your reader needs to know. Try these tips:

Use an active voice when you can. Use subjects with verbs.

Passive: Your child will be brought into the operating room.
Active, with subject: A member of your child’s healthcare team will bring them into the operating room.

Use positive phrases when possible.

Negative: Do not forget to take both pills.
Positive: Remember to take both pills.

Address your reader as ‘you.’

Does not address the reader: Social workers will tell patients and families about community groups.
Addresses the reader: Social workers will tell you about community groups for patients and families.

When writing Q & A, use ‘I.’

'I' question: What do I do if the bandage peels off?
    Call your nurse.

Use ‘they,’ ‘their’ or ‘them’ when you write about a single person.

Uses 'his or her': Your support person must wear his or her hospital bracelet.
Uses 'their': Your support person must wear their hospital bracelet.

Use ‘must’ when an action is necessary.

Uses 'should': You should wear gloves.
Uses 'must': You must wear gloves.  (Or, write in the imperative: ‘Wear gloves.’)

Keep instructions simple.

Unclear: Scrub the cap for 15-30 seconds.
Simple: Scrub the cap for 30 seconds.

If your reader needs to know a medical term or acronym, define it.

Important definition: The A1C blood test checks glucose (blood sugar) levels for the past 3 months.

If your reader does not need to know a medical term or acronym, use everyday words instead.

Unnecessary medical term: Your child may have difficulty with gait (walking). 
No medical term: Your child may have difficulty walking

- Sources: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC:; Checklist for plain language. (n.d.)

 Use these resources to review your documents:


  • Black text on a white background
  • Images: choose clear photos or black and white illustrations. Images must work with your text to help the reader understand your message. Remember: ions or symbols must be universal.
  • White space: Leave space at the margins, between lines and words, and around images. White space helps readers scan and understand your document.
  • Accessible fonts: Choose sans serif fonts when writing for web. Use 1 or 2 fonts in your document.


  • underlined text
  • Italics

- Sources: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC:; Mindlin, M. (2015, July 8). Serif or sans? [Blog entry.] Center for Plain Language.

How well does your document work?

Test it with:

Or, ask patients and families about the document with:

  • Interviews,
  • Surveys, or
  • Focus groups

- Source: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC:

Did you know?

The Patient Experience Department at C+W supports staff in getting patient and family feedback. Contact them by email.

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Health Literacy Information Specialist

What I do

I support C+W staff creating educational documents for patients and families. Documents take different forms, like video scripts, web content and mobile apps. Your document's format will depend on your audience, and on the documents' purpose.

I can:

  • Consult on your document's accessibility (including video scripts, mobile app and web content)
  • Provide you with plain language resources
  • Index your document in our Family Support & Resource Centre catalogue

Contact me

Pamela Harrison, MLIS
Health Literacy Information Specialist

Office: K2-126, Ambulatory Care Building
Phone: 604-875-2345 x 5391
Cell:  604-230-7559

Contact Us

Ask us!

Phone: 604-875-2155

Study & Learning Commons
F4, Shaughnessy Building
4480 Oak Street
Vancouver, BC

Hours: 24/7 with BCCW swipe card
Staffed hours: M-F, 10:30am-12:30pm

Ask a Librarian:

M-W, (604) 875-2345 ext. 5569