how to write in plain english

How to write in plain English may seem like the simplest thing in the world, to anyone who has any level of academic education. Surely, you write using plain words using concepts anyone could understand.

And, yet it seems that writing in plain English is not just as easy it might sound.

The Plain English Campaign

The Plain English Campaign has been running since the year Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK. Their fight is against “gobbledegook, jargon and misleading public information“. They offer a Crystal Mark to organisations that provide clearly written publications. And, they also provide an annual joke-with-a-jag Golden Bull Award to a selection of those who do not.

It’s not lost on me that they mostly work within banking, public authorities and government – places that provide copious examples of incoherent, confusing and inconsistent documentation – to help illustrate this pesky problem to clients and students.

How to Write in Plain English

Clever writers will bookmark every single one of The Plain English Campaign’s excellent series of free guides. The best of these is How to write in plain English. Its straightforward writing principles – which seem to be at the heart of its campaign – are as follows. I add my own interpretation to each in turn.

Keep Your Sentences Short

Have you ever read a rambling paragraph of some obscure 7.1.b section of an insurance policy and wondered whether you were covered for a large puddle caused by your toddler who left the taps running; ceiling and furniture damage flood caused by the negligent occupants of the upstairs flat; or the deluge when the hills behind your house melt into a mucky surge and engulf your home once every 78 years? You’re not alone.

Rambling sentences like the one above, well structured as it is, are harder to read. Short sentences, like the following one, get to the point quickly.

My caveat is that good writing should contain a mixture of short, medium and long sentences to maintain the reader’s interest.

Prefer Active Verbs

Nothing deadens writing quicker than passive verbs. It can also have the unintended consequence of distancing the reader from the action. Compare these two sentences:

  • Passive: Bins should be placed at the end of your driveway, each Wednesday morning before 7:30am.
  • Active: Place your bin at the end of your driveway every Wednesday before 07:30.

Use the active voice more often than the passive voice. It enlivens your writing, uses less words and holds the reader’s interest longer.

Use ‘you’ and ‘we’

Avoid using ‘residents’, ‘clients’, ‘users’, ‘readers’ and similar words, when ‘you’ would fit. It makes it sound like you’re talking directly to the reader (which you are).

When referring to your organisation or company, use ‘we’ or ‘I’. It feels more communal and connected.


Use Words that are Appropriate for the Reader

If your readers include the general public – or those who may be completely unfamiliar with the technical terms commonly used in your field, industry or topic – then use plain English equivalents.

Don’t talk about ‘cybersecurity’; instead, depending on the context, you could write ‘data security’ or ‘keeping your information safe’.

Don’t be Afraid to Give Instructions

This is a very common style of writing to be found in internal procedures where there are steps to follow, and in Technical Writing for all sorts of industries.

It is almost impossible to be unclear when you number or bullet point your text. The format forces the use of command verbs (‘open’, ‘select’) at the beginning of sentences.

Avoid Nominalisations

This is not about banning a long list of long words. It is simply about making sure longer versions of words are not used when there is a simpler equivalent.

  • Prefer ‘complete’ over ‘completion’.
  • Avoid talking about ‘documentation’ in the wrong context. In most cases, ‘document’ would be better.

Use Lists Where Appropriate

  • If information can be provided in list format, do it.
  • The format helps you to clarify your thoughts as you’re writing.
  • Lists allow those who’re skim reading to identify the key points.

If only all public information followed their principles!

Debate and Read More

What do you think about the Plain English Campaign’s principles? Do they work for every piece of copywriting, business writing or technical writing? Or, is more nuance required? Add your thoughts in a comment.

If you’d like to read more, see When to Use Jargon in Copywriting, Foolish Language, Foolish Thoughts and Golden Bull Award.

Image: supplied with permission by the Plain English Campaign