Comparing three plain language standards from across the globe

Ryan Tippet | June 22, 2023

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) released its first-ever Plain Language Standard today.

You can read our blog about the Standard and what it covers.

If New Zealand’s Plain Language Act 2022 affects you or your organisation, you may be interested to know how it relates to the ISO Standard. Does the ISO Standard have any contradictory requirements? Is a document certifiably ‘plain’ if it meets the ISO Standard? We’ll take a look at these questions below.

We also check in on Write’s own Plain Language Standard, to find out how it compares to the ISO Standard. If you’ve been using Write’s Standard to help with meeting the Plain Language Act’s requirements, you might find this blog helpful.

Is the ISO Standard compatible with the Plain Language Act?

In our view, the ISO Standard and Plain Language Act are complementary documents. Following the Standard’s guidance will help you comply with the Act.

But, importantly, the two documents do very different things.

Close-up of a file binder in a woman’s hands.

The Plain Language Act requires public service agencies and Crown agents to communicate clearly with the public. Image by Ono Kosuki / Pexels Licence

How the ISO Standard maps onto the Act

The Act doesn’t include any details about how to write in plain language. It doesn’t prescribe particular techniques or quantify measures of plainness.

Instead, it defines plain language briefly, as language that is ‘appropriate to the intended audience’ and ‘clear, concise and well organised’.

The ISO Standard also does not measure plainness quantitatively. Rather, it is a detailed guide for writing in plain language — for any audience, in any sector, in any language. Its four principles — relevant, findable, understandable, and usable — map onto the Act’s definition of plain language well.

What the Standard includes that the Act omits

The ISO Standard aligns well with the requirements of the Act because the Act is very broad. But the Standard’s detailed guidance includes aspects that are not reflected in the Act’s more limited definition.

The Act has no requirements about images, for example. The ISO Standard suggests using images and multimedia to help capture attention and transmit information. It also provides advice on labelling and formatting images in a way that supports text.

The Act also doesn’t require documents to be evaluated or tested. In the ISO Standard, a crucial aspect of its ‘usable’ plain language principle requires evaluating how a document performs, and continually reviewing and improving it.

While the Act doesn’t call for testing, the Public Service Commission’s ‘Guidance for agencies’ recommends having a way to receive public feedback.

How does Write’s Plain Language Standard map onto the ISO Standard?

In some ways, Write’s Standard bridges the gap between the Plain Language Act and the ISO Standard. It’s a kind of stepping stone between broad requirements and detailed guidelines.

Our Standard is a set of 10 statements that describe the features of a clear, reader-friendly, and effective document. It offers much more guidance than the Plain Language Act, but it doesn’t delve into the level of detail that the ISO Standard provides.

Write’s Standard is a handy tool for evaluating whether a document works for your readers. In fact, the Public Service Commission held it up as an example of an internal tool to help agencies comply with the Plain Language Act.

Close up of a person’s feet standing on a rock in a stream.

Write’s Plain Language Standard can act as a stepping stone between the broad Plain Language Act and the detailed ISO Standard. Image by Jordan Whitt / Unsplash Licence

How Write’s Standard compares to the ISO Standard

Like the Plain Language Act, Write’s Standard aligns well with the guidance in the ISO Standard. Write’s Standard covers some of the ISO guidance, particularly under the principle of ‘relevant’, in its accompanying text — rather than in its 10 statements.

The two standards highlight many of the same elements of effective plain language writing. In Write’s Standard, these are sorted into three categories: big picture, language, and presentation elements.

In some places, the ISO Standard offers extra details. These include guidance on connecting paragraphs together, separating supplementary information, and references to documents being ‘cohesive’.

Write’s Standard doesn’t address all of the same details explicitly, but its higher-level guidance suggests the same or similar practices.

Whose purpose do we write for?

Perhaps the biggest difference between the ISO Standard and Write’s is a slightly philosophical one.

Write’s Standard asks authors to check whether ‘The purpose of the document is clear at the start’. In other words, ‘Is it obvious what this document is trying to achieve?’

But the ISO Standard only refers to the reader’s purpose for reading the document. It asks, ‘Does this document help the reader achieve what they want?’

Is the document’s purpose or the reader’s purpose more important? Which should determine how you structure and write your communications?

Writing effective plain language means writing for your reader. It means writing so that they can understand and act upon what they read. Clear communications consider who their reader is, what they need, and what context they’re reading in. Foregrounding your reader’s purpose is always important.

At the same time, readers don’t always have a clear purpose for reading documents. Many documents exist because they have an official, legal, or financial purpose. In these cases, what many readers want is not to have to read the document at all! But the document’s purpose is still important, so it has to be written.

This shows that both the reader’s and the writer’s purposes are important. When we create a document because we need it to exist — not because our readers want to use it — we still have a responsibility to make the document reader-friendly, and to make its purpose clear from the outset.

So which tool should you use?

The Plain Language Act, Write’s Plain Language Standard, and the new ISO Plain Language Standard all do different things, but they all have readability at their heart. They offer different levels of detail, and place different requirements on authors.

A grey plastic toolbox on a wooden floor, filled with red-handled tools and attachments.

Our plain language toolbox is full of useful tools, like the new ISO Plain Language Standard. Image by Tekton / Unsplash Licence

The WriteMark® Plain Language Standard is different again, as it offers a way to certify documents and websites that meet a high standard of plain language.

Read how the WriteMark® Plain Language Standard compares to the new ISO Standard

As we wrote in our other blog today, it’s best to think of these guides, standards, and requirements as a set of tools in your plain language toolbox. Different tools are better suited for different jobs, but they all function to make the world a clearer and more accessible place.

Find out more about the Plain Language Act and Write’s Plain Language Standard

Visit our webpage full of Plain Language Act resources

View the Public Service Commission’s Guidance for agencies

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.