How to write in PLAIN ENGLISH 7 tips for clear copy

When you write using plain English, you write with your reader in mind in a way that’s clear and concise. The seven principles of plain English underpin all my writing. The clarity that results from following these principles has been particularly vital since I started writing for an international audience.

The seven principles that follow can be applied to any type of writing for any channel, online or offline. Plain English isn’t a writing style or a tone of voice. It’s not about dumbing down or avoiding long words. And it’s not about becoming a grammar pedant. It’s about beautifully clear, readable writing.

If you want to improve your writing, plain English is the perfect place to start. Keep reading for a whistle-stop tour of the seven foundation stones of great writing. To illustrate some of the principles, I’ve added examples drawn from my own work in international development. These examples are inevitably sector-specific, but don’t let that put you off – the principles are universal.


  1. KEEP YOUR SENTENCES SHORT

Aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words. The best way to do this is by limiting each sentence to one idea.

This is an average. It doesn’t mean every sentence should be the same length. Vary the length of your sentences to keep your reader interested.

Before After
Many rural areas in Zimbabwe and Malawi are deprived and isolated because they’re not connected to the national electricity grid and are unlikely to ever be connected because they are so remote and even if they were connected, it would cost too much for most people living there to use it. Many rural areas in Zimbabwe and Malawi are deprived and isolated. They’re not connected to the national electricity grid and are unlikely to ever be connected because they are so remote. Even if they were connected, it would cost too much for most people living there to use the electricity.

 


  1. USE ACTIVE VERBS

Using active verbs, or the ‘active voice’, makes your writing sound more direct and professional. Aim to make about 80% to 90% of your verbs active.

Here are some examples of the same messages written using active and passive verbs. You can see how using the active version comes across as more natural and straightforward. On the other hand, the passive examples are more bureaucratic and long-winded. Writing more complex sentences using the passive voice can also become confusing for the reader.

Passive Active
This project will be finished by us soon We’ll finish this project soon
The policy was approved by the Government The Government approved the policy
The treatment facility had to be closed by the local authority The local authority had to close the treatment facility

 


  1. USE ‘YOU’ AND ‘WE’

Your words will be read by individual human beings, not by robots, demographic groups or organisations. Using the words ‘you’ and ‘we’ will instantly take your writing from bureaucratic and impersonal to human and warm.

Impersonal Personal
We’d like to tell our donors about… We’d like to tell you about…
Advice is available from… You can get advice from…
<Name of organisation> is supporting communities We’re supporting communities

 


  1. USE WORDS THAT ARE RIGHT FOR YOUR READER

“When you are talking to your reader, say exactly what you mean, using the simplest words that fit. This does not necessarily mean only using simple words − just words that the reader will understand.”
Plain English Campaign

Your own knowledge of your reader is your most useful tool when it comes to working out which words are most appropriate. In general, keep to everyday English whenever possible. You might find it useful to imagine you’re talking to someone. Does the language you’re using sound odd when you say it out loud? Why is that? Which alternative words might make your writing more human-sounding?


  1. DON’T BE AFRAID TO GIVE INSTRUCTIONS

The below examples are taken from the Plain English Campaign’s writing guide. They perfectly illustrate the power of direct commands and how that power can be lost through fussy, passive writing. Some of these examples are comical, but they make the point – don’t use more words than necessary to get your message across.

Simple command Bureaucratic alternative
Sit! Dogs are advised that they should sit down
Brush your teeth Your teeth should be brushed
Please send it to me I should be grateful if you would send it to me

 


  1. AVOID NOMINALISATIONS

A nominalisation is a noun that isn’t a physical object. It might be a process, a technique or an emotion. It’s formed from a verb.

There’s nothing wrong with nominalisations when they’re used sparingly. However, too many nominalisations in a piece of writing can make it stilted and dull. Often, things can be livened up by replacing the nominalisation with the original verb.

Before After
We had a discussion about it We discussed it
We entered into a collaboration with them We collaborated with them
The implementation of the method has been done by a team A team has implemented the method

 


  1. KEEP IT SIMPLE

“I never write Metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same price for city. I never write policeman because I can get the same money for cop.”
Mark Twain

Don’t use more words than you need to. And don’t use fancy words when there’s a simple alternative. Here a few overused words that have a simpler alternative:

Avoid Alternative
Additional Extra
Advise Tell
Commence Start
Consequently So
In excess of More than
In the event of If
Particulars Details

 


Now it’s time to put your plain English knowledge into practice. Revisit something you wrote recently – it could be a blog, report or email. Rewrite it using the principles above. Is it clearer and easier to read? Hopefully the answer is yes!

For more information about plain English, including lots of examples, guides and tips, visit the Plain English Campaign website. There’s even a grammar quiz and a very silly gobbledegook generator.

Enjoy your sparkling clean, crystal clear copy!


Posted in Copywriting