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Write less, say more: a refresher guide to plain English

As copywriters, it’s our job to get messages across simply and clearly. That can sometimes feel quite straightforward, as if we’re not really writing anything clever at all.

But some people find it very hard to write in clear English. In fact, writing simply is a real skill, one that needs to be developed and honed over many years of writing and editing.Macmillan cancer info page - what is cancer

So if you’re just starting out and want to understand a bit more about what plain English is all about, I hope you find this article useful.

If you’re an established writer, I know you know this already. But it never hurts to revisit these tips, especially when you’re struggling with a particularly dense piece of writing.

Sit back with a cup of tea and read through your work critically to check you are indeed writing as clearly as possible.

Back to basics: what is plain English?

‘Plain English’ means writing something as simply and directly as possible, in language that all readers will understand.

This isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about maximising the number of people who will read, absorb and act on your words.

“If you want your writing to achieve its goal, then do all you can to make life easy for your reader. Keep it short, avoid unnecessary technical language and use clear, simple words. It will increase your chances of being read and understood rather than skimmed or binned.” Mark Morris, Head of Clear English at the Department of Health

People started campaigning for clearer use of the English language in government communications in the 1970s, and the public sector has been trying to clean up its act ever since.

Plain English Campaign Crystal Mark

Plain English Campaign Crystal Mark

The term ‘plain English’ became more recognised in the early 1990s with the establishment of accreditation schemes such as the Plain English Campaign’s crystal mark and the Plain Language Commission’s clear English standard.

These days referring to plain English as a movement seems outdated. It’s now generally accepted and understood that the principles of plain English (or plain language) are the global standard for all business writing.

But that doesn’t mean everyone is doing it well. You don’t have to look too hard to find websites and leaflets aimed at the public that are packed full of management jargon, technical language and meaningless acronyms.

When should you use plain English?

If you are writing for a business, charity or public sector organisation, then the obvious answer is ‘all the time’. (I’m not suggesting you have to plain English your poetry or latest novel, although…less is more!)

But there are scenarios where as a copywriter or editor you’ll need to employ your plain English skills more than others.

This particularly relates to writing information materials, technical guides, or any communications where it is important that the reader understands exactly what you’re asking them to do.

A reminder of how to write plain English

Here are eight tips from the Plain English Campaign, you can read these in more detail in their How to write plain English guide.

  • Stop and think before you start writing. Make a note of the points you want to make in a logical order.
  • Prefer short words. Long words will not impress your customers or help your writing style.
  • Use everyday English whenever possible. Avoid jargon and legalistic words, and always explain any technical terms you have to use.
  • Keep your sentence length down to an average of 15 to 20 words. Try to stick to one main idea in a sentence.
  • Use active verbs as much as possible. Say ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done by us’.
  • Be concise.
  • Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice.
  • And always check that your writing is clear, helpful, human and polite.

There are no real rules though, only guidelines. What matters is to always keep the reader in mind. Knowing your audience is vital. After all, what is ‘plain’ to an audience of scientists may be gobbledegook to everyone else. If it’s your industry you may not even notice that some words will be seen as jargon by others. It’s useful to test it out on someone who represents your end audience.

You also need to make sure you understand very clearly what it is you’re trying to say to someone else. Remember, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. (I don’t know who said this originally, but I have it on a post-it above my desk as a constant reminder.)

“No writer can clarify for the reader what is not clear to the writer in the first place.” Roy Peter Clark

Who does it well?

There are some great examples of organisations that consistently use plain English really well in their communications.

In general the third sector is pretty good at communicating clearly. Some big charities have it down to a fine art. Motor Neurone Disease Association, Winston’s Wish and Macmillan Cancer Support have all won awards for their plain English – demonstrating it is more than possible to provide detailed information about difficult subjects in clear and accessible ways.

Interestingly, some parts of the public sector – the people who used to do it really badly – are now leading the way in how to do it really well.

For the last few years, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has led a huge project to move (and improve) information provided on many different government websites into one central gov.uk hub.

The strapline ‘simpler, clearer, faster’ sums it up. This project has meant a complete overhaul of how information is provided by the government, redesigning content and rewriting everything using plain English.

“Our hope is that no one ever notices the language.” Russell Davies, GDS 2012

Innovative private sector brands with a really clear tone of voice often take a very plain English approach to their communications, adding humour and humanness to come across as warm, fun and approachable. Think of food brands like Innocent.

But what about the private sector brands who need to communicate detailed information to consumers? The financial and legal sectors have been slower to catch up. I’m sure you all have your own examples of policy terms and conditions that are completely impossible to read, let alone understand.

Consider this recent article which highlights recent research showing that the small print on some insurance and banking products is only understandable to those with a university education. The article also points out that an estimated 16% of UK adults have a reading age of 11 or less.

While we’re on the subject of reading age, it’s useful to remember that most broadsheet newspapers use a writing style aimed at teenage comprehension levels, while red tops like the Sun have a reading age of around eight years old.

The daily battle for clarity

And so the battle continues. As communications professionals, we don’t need convincing of the value of writing simply and clearly.

However, other people you work with may be nervous about adopting what they see as a more simplistic style and will resist your attempts to strip back complex communications. For some people it can mean having to break lifelong habits of more formal academic writing.

HSBC mortgages jargon busterAnyone writing for a living will know the frustration of sending a clearly written draft off for comment from the person commissioning the work, only to have it returned to you with all the jargon and waffle added back in. It takes a confident copywriter to push back.

Here are some of the worries clients have and some ideas for how you can counter them and convince people that plain English is best.

1. Our audience is very clever, we don’t want to talk to them as if they’re stupid

You hear this a lot if you work for professional bodies or organisations with highly educated audiences (eg doctors or lawyers). In fact research has shown that even the most educated people say they prefer to read content written in plain English. That’s because it’s quicker and easier to understand. A more pleasant experience all round really. They could understand the long technical version, but it would take them longer to read. There’s an interesting blog about this here.

2. We want to reflect how important the work is

Point out that the organisation is currently hiding that importance in all those words, when actually the work should speak for itself. A reader is more likely to see how important something is if they can understand what the work is about. Baffling people with lots of big words and industry jargon will make them tune out and may end up having the opposite effect.

3. Legally it needs to be written like that

This is a difficult one. In some cases that’s true. It can be important to use exactly the right term if it has a legal meaning. But it’s always worth testing to see whether there is a simpler way of saying something which still gets across the point. When writing about legal issues it is more important than ever that your reader understands exactly what you mean, so overly formal or archaic language should be avoided and technical terms should be translated. Many organisations are now trying to plain English their terms and conditions, proving it is possible.

4. We need to get across a certain amount of detail

You could argue that if that is the case, it’s even more important to use plain English and present the detail as clearly and simply as possible so that the important details won’t get lost. Plain English is not about dumbing down, it’s just about being clear.

5. It’s hard to explain in fewer words

As I said earlier, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. As a copywriter it’s your job to ask more questions, find out what the core message is, and help the client find a way of explaining themselves plainly – it’s always possible.

Be bold, push back, hold fast

Remember, writing simply is a skill. A real skill. Not everyone finds it easy. But everyone can learn how to do it better.

Refine, review, rewrite. Now do it again. Strip out all that jargon. Be confident and clear that five words are better than ten. Two syllables are better than five. These aren’t just the principles of plain English but the processes of good writing. Think of yourself as a minimalist artist, a poet who likes to strip things back to their absolute core. You see, you are in fact a genius!

Want to know more?

This PCN blog post on plain English points to some useful links and resources and is worth a read.

This blog on corporate jargon from Oxford Dictionaries really made me smile, while their piece on writing plain English (with examples) is also helpful. The Plain Language Commission also gives some useful before and after examples.

The Plain English Campaign provides a number of free guides on their website, including How to write in plain English, an A-Z of alternative phrases, and handy glossaries of legal and financial terms.
This blog post was first published on the Professional Copywriters’ Network in November 2015.