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Stopping confusion using plain language

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Allison Riley

Communication is the most important skill in the legal profession, especially when dealing with immigration law. When information is not explained properly, events can quickly escalate to dangerous situations. This is why CLINIC brought in Janna Evans of the Public Engagement Division for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to lead a training on using plain language.

Knowing how important communication is, I was eager to improve my skills. Going into the class, I assumed plain language meant using simpler words so the general public understands what you write. As a law student, I thought that meant “dumbing down” legal concepts so anyone who reads at an eighth grade level could understand it.

During the training I gradually learned I was wrong. Plain language is about writing with the reader in mind. It is less about the complexity of the words or subject, but rather how the information is presented. The goal is to use language that the reader can understand the first time they read it.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind regardless of the topic or purpose:

  • Say what is important first. It hooks the reader and if they stop reading early they at least know what matters.
  • Write in a concise manner using active voice, flowing as logically as possible.  
  • Consider using first person when appropriate. Using personal pronouns like “you” helps make the reader connect with the information.
  • Keep paragraphs and sentences short to keep the reader focused and engaged. Bulleting lists and using headers can help organize the information as well.
  • When you cannot avoid technical or long phrases, break them up into separate paragraphs or use tables.

To view more helpful tips online, visit