The benefits of plain English writing

What is plain English writing?

Plain English writing (or plain language writing) is text written so that it conveys the intended meaning in language that is easy to understand. It does not involve (as some might think) ‘dumbing down’ of the language but instead focuses on clear communication, and so results in crisp, clear, concise sentences with no ambiguity.

The plain English writing style is beneficial for any document produced by a government or business – for any purpose – whether the intended audience is the general public, stakeholders, academics, government officials or ministers. Underlying the plain language approach is the recognition that the reader’s need (for understanding) is the critical element of any piece of communication – certainly more important than the author’s desire to impress or embellish through complicated sentence structures and complex word choices. These linguistic flourishes have their place in creative writing but not in communications between organisations and their customers or stakeholders, where the goal is effective transmission of a message.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.   George Bernard Shaw

The shift toward plain English

Governments around the world recognise the value of plain language communication. In 2010, the U.S. Government passed a law, the Plain Writing Act, that requires U.S. federal agencies to use plain language in their communications with the public. The guidelines for this law explain that writing clearly and getting straight to the point, without unnecessary words or jargon, will get the message across quickly and increase the likelihood of understanding.

The need for plain language is also recognised by lawyers, solicitors, barristers and attorneys around the world. Members of the legal profession in more than 50 countries have joined Clarity, an international organisation committed to promoting plain legal language.

Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.
William Butler Yeats

Basic principles of plain English

Keeping in mind the goal of clear communication it makes sense to employ the KISS principle. There are various explanations for the origins of this acronym including: ‘Keep it short or simple’; ‘Keep it simple and straightforward’; ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ and some that are even less polite, but the underlying idea is consistent. When writing in plain English the KISS principle comes down to thinking about: what you say (focus) and how you say it (tone).

1. Focus – what you say

Focus on what needs to be said and say it clearly and logically in short sentences. Present important facts or instructions first in each section and paragraph. Include other necessary details. Leave out non-essential information. Use transition words to indicate connections and sequences (so, also, in addition, first, for example, similarly…).

Example:
  The XYZ department requires that you provide the information requested by completing the attached form at your earliest convenience. (19 words)
  Please complete the form and return it to us. (9 words)

2. Tone – how you say it

Use language that is conversational and friendly rather than bureaucratic, legalistic, academic or full of jargon. Choose everyday words that are concrete rather than abstract, and strong verbs in the active rather than passive voice. Avoid buzzwords, jargon and weasel words.

Example:
  Your communication has been received by the department. (8 words)
  We have received your email.  (5 words)

Benefits of rewriting in plain English

The primary benefit of using plain English is the improved efficiency in communicating with your audience through:

– eliminating or reducing confusion and misunderstandings

– speed (and clarity) in getting the message through

– enhancing the image, ‘personality’ and reputation of your organisation as friendly rather than bureaucratic, easy-to-deal-with rather than difficult and demanding.

And there are other savings that can be measured more tangibly. A plain English message almost always takes fewer words to get across, sometimes only half as many words. Fewer words require fewer pages, resulting in real savings in printing, distribution and storage costs for your organisation.

Shorter documents also bring a time saving both within the organisation less time is spent within the organisation reading and reviewing before And of course, there will be savings in the time it takes you to review documents.

Central Editing approach to plain English writing 

Central Editing adopts the position of reader advocate when reviewing and rewriting text for our clients. Even though the meaning of a paragraph/page/report may seem to be perfectly clear, we consider whether the message could be further clarified, whether the language could be improved or simplified, and whether the meaning of any words, phrases or sentences could be ambiguous. We consider the key purpose of the document and the best language to express this to the intended audience in the simplest way.  

The reader’s need (for understanding) is the critical element of any piece of communication. 


Plain English writing tips

Minimise jargon and buzzwords
e.g. cover all the bases,
bricks & mortar,
level playing field,
heads-up,
drill down,
double down,
on the back of,
synergy,
low-hanging fruit,
ducks in a row,
quantum leap,
on the same page,
salient,
optimise,
facilitate,
incentivise,
leverage,
impact (as a verb).

Eliminate meaningless qualifiers
e.g. fundamental basis,
a range of different options,
strictly prohibited,
totally overwhelmed,
returning again,
cease to operate.
Words such as: very, basically, really, currently, relatively, effectively.

Use everyday words
e.g. replace ‘anticipate’ with ‘expect’,
commencement → start,
demonstrate → show,
endeavour → try,
utilise → use,
notwithstanding → despite,
additional → more/extra,
ascertain → learn/find out.

Beware tautology/redundancy
e.g. basic essentials,
end result,
free gift,
new initiative,
past history,
personal opinion,
various different,
goals and objectives,
needs and requirements,
issues and problems.

Simplify phrases
Replace ‘take on board’ with ‘agree’,
in this day and age → now,
in the near future → soon,
at this point in time → now,
due to the fact that → because,
has the capability/is able to → can,
consideration of the fact that → because,
for the purpose of → for,
in order to → to,
with regards to → about,
on a daily basis → daily),
is likely to → may.

Avoid cliches
e.g. all things being equal,
last but not least,
second to none,
under the radar,
point of no return,
par for the course,
tip of the iceberg.

Use simple verb forms
extend an invitation → invite,
give consideration to → consider,
arrive at a conclusion → conclude,
provide assistance to → assist,
is able to → can.

Recommended resources for more information about plain English and clear writing

Books

Clear & concise: Become a better business writer by S. McKerihan

Writing in plain English by R. Eagleson

How to write plain English by R. Flesh

Effective writing: Plain English at work by E. Murphy & S. Snell

The professional writing guide by R. Petelin & M. Durham

The Oxford Guide to plain English by M. Cutts

The Cambridge guide to Australian English usage by P. Peters

Organisations

Plain English Campaign     

Plain Language Association International (PLAIN)

Clarity International

TED talks

Demand to understand: How plain language makes life simpler | Deborah Bosley | TEDxCharlotte

Let’s simplify legal jargon! | Alan Siegel | TED2010

The right to understand| Sandra Fisher-Martins | TEDxO’Porto

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