Put simply, plain English is about exactly that: putting things simply. Plain English doesn’t need to be boring or patronising. It just needs to be clear, concise and easy to understand.
Read on to find out why it matters and, more importantly, how you can start writing in plain English.
Why should I write in plain English?
The goal of any text is to get a message across to the reader – and doing so clearly isn’t just helpful and efficient: it can be empowering.
Take important legal documents, for example. These are often stuffed with jargon, making them inaccessible to many of us. But when texts are clear and concise, using words we can all understand, everyone is empowered to use and act on the information they contain.
Plain English isn’t all about the reader, though. When you’ve got the hang of it, plain English can be faster to write too. It’s win-win!
So how do you do it?
Think about your reader
Who do you want to read your text?
What is the main message you want them to understand?
Use these questions to help structure your writing logically, with the most important information first. This also helps to keep the focus on what really matters.
Prioritise simple words
No one benefits if you hide your message behind elaborate language and unnecessarily long words. When you have a choice, always choose the everyday word. Pick ‘show’ instead of ‘demonstrate’, for example, or ‘expect’ instead of ‘anticipate’.
Prioritising simple words doesn’t mean you need to discard jargon altogether. If you’re sure your readers will know certain specialist terms, it may be clearer to use them.
Use short sentences
Shorter sentences are easier to understand. Try to make them an average length of 15 to 20 words.
It helps to stick to one idea per sentence. This doesn’t mean they should all be the same length, though. Variation adds interest.
Avoid the passive
Our brains process active sentences more quickly. Compare the following two examples:
- The techniques were explained to the students by the teacher.
- The teacher explained the techniques to the students.
In the first example, we’re not quite sure what to focus on until the end of the sentence. The second example gives us the information in a more logical order. This helps us build a picture of what’s happening without our brains having to reshuffle anything at the end.
Whenever you spot a passive sentence in your writing, see if it works better in the active voice. (In some cases, however, the passive works just fine – as we’ve discussed before.)
Give it a go!
If you follow these principles, your writing will quickly become clear and concise. But it can be difficult to step away from your text and approach it with fresh eyes.
If you need advice on how to use plain English – or how to transform a document you’ve already written – our expert linguists are on hand to help.