by Mary McCauley
If you find yourself getting all your ducks in a row going forward looking for that window of opportunity to reach out and have a dialogue about what you can bring to the table when touching base on your learnings, you know it’s time to start using plain English.
What is plain English?
Writing in plain English is about communicating your message as clearly and effectively as possible to your target reader. Doing this will save you and them time and money.
According to Plain Language Association International (PLAIN):
a written communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand it and use it.
So it’s not just a case of the wording being clear – the structure and design must be clear too. And it’s not only about the reader being able to understand and use the information you’ve written. First, they must be able to easily find it.
Robert Linsky, director of information design at NEPS (New England Programming Services, Inc.), summaries this nicely in his LUNA™ philosophy: your reader must be able to Locate the information they need, then UNderstand it and then Act on it. If your reader cannot do this, then your message has failed.
Why use plain English?
According to the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA), one in six Irish adults has problems understanding basic written information. Therefore, if you’re writing for the general public, use plain English so that as many people as possible can understand your message.
Readers prefer it
Plain English, however, is not only better for those with reading problems. Many of us are too busy these days to waste time wading through dense, longwinded text to get to the basic information we’re looking for. If it is written in plain English, we can quickly find the information we need, easily understand it and act on it.
Better for business
Writing your documents in plain English will help your business. Your customers and staff will be able to use your documents more quickly and easily, saving them and your business time and money. If your customers understand your documents better, they are less likely to contact your customer services section with queries or complaints. They may even be more satisfied with your products and services, and more likely to recommend them.
If you are writing for the public sector in Ireland, the Plain Language Bill 2019 could affect you. If it is passed into law, all information for the public from government and State bodies will have to be written and presented in plain language.
Already in law are the European Communities (Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts) Regulations, 1995. Under these regulations, the standard terms in your written consumer contracts for supplying goods or services must be ‘in plain intelligible language’.
How do you write in plain English?
Identify your audience
Before you write anything make sure you know who your target reader is. This will guide your choice of words and content. Use language they will understand. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes – what do they want to know and need to know?
Avoid long sentences
Try to include just one idea in each sentence, as this breaks up the information into more easily processed pieces. A good guideline is to aim for 15 to 20 words per sentence on average.
Use everyday words
Keep your language as simple as possible. It’s fine to use technical terms if your audience is familiar with and understands them. However, if your audience is the general public, then you may need to use simpler wording, explain technical terms or include a glossary. Use everyday language rather than jargon.
Use active language
Use an active voice more than a passive one. Passive writing can make a document sound bureaucratic and overly formal, and it can make it harder to understand. In a passive sentence the person doing the action is often unidentified. For example:
The report was published by the Finance Department. (passive)
Our Finance Department published the report. (active)
Avoid hidden verbs
Hidden verbs are verbs changed into nouns. They lead to wordiness in a document and can make it sound longwinded. For example:
We made an application for the grant after we held a discussion on it.
We applied for the grant after discussing it.
Use a clear layout
Use headings, subheadings and vertical lists to guide your reader through the information. These will present the information more clearly than long paragraphs of text one after the other. A clear layout will also help your reader to find the information they need. Tables, illustrations and infographics are also useful ways to present information clearly to readers.
Cut out unnecessary words and repetition. A good tip is to get everything down on paper in a first draft. Then go back and edit it again until all the padding is gone.
How can a plain English editor help you?
Writing and editing in plain English is not easy – it takes skill and time. While the above are just some guidelines for writing in plain English, there are others. If you need professional help, a plain English editor can apply these guidelines to make your document clearer and easier to understand.
If you need the help of a plain English editor, it’s important to consult with one early in the process of creating your document. Contacting an editor shortly before publishing the document is too late – plain English editing can involve rewriting a lot of the document and this takes time. It can also mean working closely with the editor to make sure your content is suitable for your intended audience. A plain English editor will help you to take a fresh look at your document through the eyes of your reader.
Firstly, talk to the editor to discuss your needs for the document and let them know who your target audience is. Once you have agreed the brief, the editor will need to see the document so they can prepare a quote and agree a timetable for the work. Several rounds of editing may follow before your document is ready for its intended audience.
- Oxford Guide to Plain English by Martin Cutts, published by Oxford University Press
- Plain Language and Ethical Action by Russell Willerton, published by Routledge
- European Commission’s How to write clearly, available online
- Plain Language Association International (PLAIN): https://plainlanguagenetwork.org/
- National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA): https://www.nala.ie
- NEPS’s LUNA™ model: http://neps.com/resources/locate-understand-act-luna/
- Plain Language Bill 2019: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/bills/bill/2019/7/
Mary McCauley is a plain English editor, editor and proofreader. She specialises in working with businesses and government and public sector bodies. She has 15 years’ business research and administrative experience, mostly in the public sector, and started her editorial business Mary McCauley Proofreading in 2012. She is a Full Member of AFEPI Ireland, an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and a member of Plain Language Association International. Connect with Mary on LinkedIn or on Twitter.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.