Writing in plain language (plain English)

Impress people with your thinking, not your language

Big words and complex sentences can generate an impression of being ‘educated’. Some writers deliberately make text difficult to understand to create an air of mystique and to emphasise the distance between their intelligence and that of the reader. This pretence gets in the way of communication.

A good writer works hard so that the reader won’t have to

The writer’s job is to tell as much as possible, accurately and clearly, in as little reading as possible. Make it easy for your reader to receive and understand your ideas.

 1. Prefer clear, familiar words

The reader should never have to guess at a meaning, encounter ambiguity or be forced to interpret an expression. Use words familiar to your audience. Use just enough words to get the message across clearly.

Do not use facilitate when you could use help, utilise when you could write use, endeavour instead of try, or sufficient when you could write enough.

 2. Prefer the active voice over passive voice

Sentences written in the active voice tend to be more direct and easier to follow. They are usually more personal than sentences in the passive voice because they include references to human “agents” (participants doing the action).

In active voice sentences, the ‘agent’ (the participant doing the action) is placed before the verb:

We will send your receipt next week.

(agent) (verb) (thing acted upon) (circumstance)

rather than

Your receipt will be sent next week.

(thing acted upon) (verb) (circumstance)

 3. Use verbs, not nouns made from verbs

One of the best ways to make text easier to understand is to replace abstract nouns (nouns like ‘verification’, ‘identification’, ‘performance’, ‘encouragement’, ‘authorisation’) with the equivalent verb.

Write You must comply rather than Compliance with these regulations is vital.

Write We could explain this by … rather than A possible explanation is that there is …

Write When you renew this policy rather than Upon renewal of this policy

 4. Write short, point first sentences

Long sentences can confuse readers even though they may be grammatically correct. People read all the way to the full stop before pausing to absorb what they have read, so long sentences strain memory.

It’s nearly always better to have the point that you want to make at the beginning of the sentence – that’s where readers start reading!

Write Without further information the draft submission cannot be approved. if you want to emphasise the lack of information.

Write The draft submission cannot be approved without further information. if you want to emphasise rejecting the submission.

 5. Use conversational style as a guide

You are writing to people!

Be wary of deliberately distancing yourself from people by the way you write. Even bureaucratic organisations are designed, maintained and populated by people. They impact people. Address the reader directly whenever possible and especially when you are writing a letter. Use personal pronouns – “you” for the reader and “we” for your organisation. Use “I” if you are specifically referring to yourself.

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