The Plain English Campaign may seem like the oddest cause to anyone who has any level of academic education. Surely, you write using plain words and concepts anyone could understand?! And, yet it seems that writing in Plain English is not as easy it might seem.

In this blog post, I explain the origins of the Plain English Campaign and then set out my understanding of how to write all sorts of business and professional documentation in this coveted style.

The Plain English Campaign

Started by Chrissie Maher OBE, a clarity champion and writer who campaigned for the use of Plain English, 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 an annual joke-with-a-jag Golden Bull Award to a selection of those who do not.

crystal mark logo

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

golden bull award

Plain English Campaign – Six Straightforward Principles

Clever writers will gobble up 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 are as follows. I add my own interpretation to each in turn.

Principle 1: Keep Your Sentences Short

Have you ever read a rambling paragraph of some obscure 7.1.b section of an insurance policy and ended up more confused than ever? Did you wonder 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 this one, get to the point quickly.

I’d add a caveat to this principle: good writing should contain a mixture of short, medium and long sentences to maintain the reader’s interest.

Principle 2: Prefer Active Verbs

Nothing deadens writing quicker than passive verbs. It can also have the unintended consequence of appearing overly format or remote and therefore 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 bins at the end of your driveway every Wednesday before 7:30am.

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

Principle 3: Use ‘you’ and ‘we’

Avoid using ‘residents’, ‘clients’, ‘users’, ‘readers’ and similar words, when ‘you’ would fit. This 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.

Principle 4: 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 – then use plain English equivalents.

Don’t talk about ‘cybersecurity’. Instead, assuming a much less technical context and audience, you could write ‘keeping your information safe’.

Principle 5: 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. But, it can work in other contexts too.

It’s almost impossible to be unclear when you add numbers or bullet points to your text. The format forces the use of command verbs (‘open’, ‘select’) at the beginning of sentences. This means your text is direct, shorter, active and easier to read.

Principle 6: 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.

Principle 7: Use Lists Where Appropriate

If information can be provided in list format, do it.

  • The format helps writers to clarify their thoughts as they’re writing.
  • Lists allow those who’re skim reading to identify key points.

If only all public information followed their principles!

Free Drivel Defence Software for Plain English

The Plain English Campaign has launched free Drivel Defence software with two tools: Drivel Defence for Text and Drivel Defence for Web.

drivel defence free software

Both tools provides reports on the use of Plain English in your writing.

Debate and Read More About the Plain English Campaign

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 about Plain English, read When to Use Jargon in Copywriting or Foolish Language, Foolish Thoughts.

Or, if you need assistance or training for your team on how to achieve Plain English in your business writing, copywrting or technical writing, get in touch.

Photo by Jason D on Unsplash

Logo supplied with permission by the Plain English Campaign