Features May/June 2024

The ISO Plain Language Standard: A Tool for All Writers

The new international standard released last year serves as a valuable resource for technical communicators as they help their organizations grow toward clear communication.

By Daniel Maddux, Member

In June 2023, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) released ISO 24495. This new standard provides an international benchmark for how to communicate in plain language. It serves as a tool that writers of all sorts of content can use as they strive to communicate in such a way that users can find, understand, and use the content they need.

Technical communicators have been striving to communicate clearly since the beginning of the profession. However, until last year, there was no international standard on plain language. When technical communicators wanted to refer to a globally agreed-upon set of principles, they had to patch together bits and pieces of plain language guidance from research and guidance from governments. Those who rely on international standards had no solid plain language content to consult. This damaged the credibility of those who specialize in plain language and could impact the usability of published text. For more information on why the standard was created, see An ISO Plain Language Standard.

Initially, a drafting group for ISO’s Technical Committee 37 came up with proposed content. The work then passed into the hands of Technical Committee 37’s Working group 11. This group was responsible for revising, approving, releasing for publication, and publicizing the new standard.

Members of some of the key worldwide plain language organizations combined to create and release the standard. These contributors spanned several continents and countries, ensuring that the standard represented the perspectives of communicators in a variety of contexts. For more information on how the standard was created, see The ISO plain language standard. The group that prepared the standard for publishing is now working to expand its scope and visibility.

After the text was ready, the working group communicated with the ISO organization to ensure that the standard would be published. After many months of work and online meetings, the standard entered the real world!

The standard was available for purchase online. Various shared licensing plans are available for individual users as well as those who want to share it with users across their organization.

What Stands Out

Perhaps the key to understanding the standard is to realize that its creators didn’t reinvent the wheel. The standard lays out many principles that are familiar to all qualified technical communicators.

For example, the standard begins with the fundamentals of audience and purpose analysis. While I can’t provide the text here, the principles will be familiar to you. The document focuses on understanding the users’ context, and on ensuring that they will be able to find the good content you’re producing. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the frustration of finding that our good, useful content has been placed out of the reach of those who need it most!

This new standard, ISO 24495, walks through the principles involved in using good headers, choosing the right words, and writing clearly at both the macro and micro levels. Though much, much shorter (just over 21 pages) than a traditional technical communication textbook, the standard’s table of contents will look familiar to those who have pursued formal or informal technical communication education.

The document closes with guidance on evaluating the effectiveness of your content. Many times, I have been disappointed to find that an employer or client isn’t interested in finding out whether the content we’re creating accomplishes its purpose. Perhaps having an international standard will aid us in pressing for our work to be evaluated?

One interesting point is that, in some ways, most ISO standards don’t follow the plain language standard. Specifically, most standards are not written in the second person. Thus, they may state that “the user should do X” rather than “(you) Do X”. I hope that the new plain language ISO standard will have a positive effect on the usability of other ISO standards in the long term.

Perhaps the main surprise in the standard is the guidance it provides on using (or rather, not using) readability scores. You may have used the readability scores built into Microsoft Word or another tool. The standard points out the shortcomings of these scores. Basically, these systems can’t diagnose whether or not text is well written; they simply do math. Just because you use short words and sentences doesn’t mean that your audience will get what they need from your content.

I’ve found that usability scores can support my suspicion that text is needlessly wordy and grammatically convoluted. But the standard makes clear that math alone does not determine whether users will be able to understand what you’ve written the first time they read it.

In short, if you are a competent technical communicator, you’re probably already following most of the standard. It can still help you make sure no gaps exist in your knowledge of plain language and serve as a reference when someone questions whether or not you know your stuff.

What’s Next

Organizations have begun investing in the standard, which has produced some positive effects.

For example, a technical communicator I know recently encountered a communication challenge at the company he worked for. He had worked with various groups in the company to create a manual, which was now in the approval phase.

One of the engineers he had worked with began to voice strong objections to the tone of the manual. The document used a natural, conversational tone for most of the content. The engineer wanted the content to be more formal, so that they would sound smarter.

When pressed to change the way the entire manual was written, the technical communicator referred to ISO 24495 as the authoritative standard for how to communicate clearly in technical documents. Since engineers in the technical communicator’s industry are used to following ISO standards, this argument seemed to be effective. For more information on ISO 24495, see ISO 24495-1:2023.


Spivak, Gael. “The ISO plain language standard: For most languages and cultures, and for all sectors.” Government of Canada (blog], August 7, 2023. https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/blogue-blog/iso-langage-simple-plain-language-eng.

Daniel Maddux has been working in plain language since he helped make financial content clear in the aftermath of the financial scandals of the late 2000s. He has provided plain language training and assistance for a variety of companies and sectors ever since then. These days, Daniel works to help ASM, an international semiconductor equipment company, communicate its technical content clearly. Daniel and his wife live in sunny (or is that brutally hot?) Phoenix, Arizona, with their dogs. You can reach him at madduxd@gmail.com.