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The everyday magic of plain language

The Office of Digital Innovation (ODI) launched and managed It’s been California’s official COVID-19 response website for over 2 years. This post is part of a series about the work we did and lessons we learned during that project.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, ODI developed our Digital Crisis Standard. It guided our work on

An important piece of this standard is its commitment to plain language and an easy reading level. These were fundamental to the content design team’s work.

Using words people understand

Plain language uses simple, familiar terms. It meets people where they are rather than asking them to learn new things.

We couldn’t use plain language for every term. This was unavoidable as we grappled with an emerging situation. Words like quarantine, isolation, and tier became part of’s vocabulary. But we did our best to use plain language whenever we could.

Here’s some content from one of our old pages:

Knowing how to take care of yourself as a caregiver during the COVID-19 outbreak is key to ensure you are most effective in parenting.

And here’s a plain language version:

Taking care of yourself is an important part of parenting. This article has ways to stay centered during COVID-19.

Both versions say the same thing, but the plain language one is easier to understand.

Writing for everyone

As part of our commitment to plain language, we set a goal of a reading level of Grade 6 for our content. We measured this with Hemingway.

We set this goal for a few reasons:

  • People were often stressed when they came to They didn’t have the mental energy to work through complicated language.
  • One of our use cases was kids translating for their non-English speaking parents. If they couldn’t understand the content, they wouldn’t be able to help their families.
  • Machine translation at this reading level is more accurate. This makes the content more accessible to non-English speakers.

Doing the hard work to make things easy

Plain language and an easy reading level makes services accessible to everyone. During the pandemic, help was there for people who needed it. Our job was to remove roadblocks to getting services.

This took a lot of work. We had to collaborate with subject matter experts to understand services. Otherwise we couldn’t write clearly about them. We shared drafts within the team to check for missed opportunities to use plain language. We also helped our partners understand the value of plain language. 

Living our principles

Today, has a median reading level of Grade 6. We’re proud of this accomplishment. It took a lot of work and partnership to get here. But we’re excited because we’ve shown it’s possible. We hope other state websites achieve this level of success too!

We’re still using plain language and watching our reading level. For example, according to Hemingway, this blog post:

  • Is reading level 5
  • Does not use passive voice
  • Has 0 words that could be simpler
  • Has 0 sentences that are hard to read

If you’re interested in using plain language in your writing, check out our plain language tips!

Peggy and Michael are Content Designers with the Office of Digital Innovation.