What does a new international Plain Language Standard mean for Aotearoa?

Ryan Tippet | June 22, 2023

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has just published its first-ever Plain Language Standard. This represents one of the most authoritative statements on plain language yet, but what does it mean for us here in Aotearoa?

The ISO Standard is backed by international best practice

ISO is a worldwide federation headquartered in Switzerland. It develops all kinds of international standards with help from national standards bodies around the world.

Close-up of an electrical device with dozens of blue, brown, and black wires plugged into numbered ports.

The ISO is perhaps best known for standardising more technical and mechanical fields, but has turned its rigorous eye towards plain language. Image by TakenPixabay licence

ISO’s Plain Language Standard has been developed with the weight of international best practice behind it. The International Plain Language Federation initiated the project, and a working group with representatives from around the world developed the Standard.

Write’s Chief Executive, Lynda Harris, has been involved in various subcommittees supporting the development of the ISO Standard. She sees its development as an important step in making plain language ‘business as usual’ around the world:

In today’s world, where transparency and ethical practices are more valued than ever, plain language is a vehicle to help achieve positive change.

You can buy the Standard on the ISO website.

Part 1 of the Standard provides ‘principles and guidelines for developing plain language documents’. Its high-level guidance applies across multiple languages. Future parts of the Standard may delve into plain language writing in specific languages, or across certain sectors — like law or finance.

Crucially, the ISO Standard doesn’t include quantitative measures or strict requirements. It cannot be used to certify documents, individuals, organisations, or training.


Close-up of a globe on a desk, showing Africa, Europe, and part of Asia.

Part 1 of the ISO Standard provides high-level guidance that applies to plain communications in any language. Future parts might zero in on certain languages or sectors. Image by Kyle Glenn / Unsplash Licence

So what does the Standard include?

The overall objective of the Standard is to ‘help authors develop documents that communicate effectively with their intended readers’. It provides comprehensive guidance on how to achieve this.

The guidance in the Standard centres on four ‘governing principles’.

1. Relevant

The ‘relevant’ principle ensures that a document contains the information readers are looking for.

2. Findable

‘Findable’ means the document is well structured and easy to navigate.

3. Understandable

A document is ‘understandable’ if readers can easily comprehend its individual elements, like words and sentences, and those elements work together as a cohesive whole.

4. Usable

Finally, the ‘usable’ principle focuses on evaluation and testing throughout a document’s life cycle, to ensure it always works for readers.

The bulk of the Standard delivers specific guidelines, arranged around those four principles. The Standard also provides a sample checklist to use as a reminder when developing documents with plain language in mind.

What does it mean for Aotearoa?

The ISO Standard is a highly credible and practical new tool. It will help writers in all sectors communicate effectively — with all kinds of audiences. Getting a licence for your organisation is a great way to expand your plain language toolbox.

The Standard’s four principles align well with both the Plain Language Act 2022 and Write’s own Plain Language Standard, as well as our widely recognised WriteMark® Plain Language Standard. In other blog posts, we’ll explore the crossovers and differences between these documents in more detail.

Overall, the ISO Plain Language Standard is another great resource for New Zealand businesses and organisations that want to ensure their writing is clear and accessible.

It’s also arriving at a great time for Aotearoa. With the Plain Language Act now in effect, government agencies are paying more attention than ever to the accessibility of their written communications — and the public is watching with interest.

What do you need to consider when writing your content?

Find out how the ISO Standard maps onto existing plain language tools

Read how the ISO Standard compares to the Plain Language Act and Write’s Plain Language Standard

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

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.