Keep it Simple: How to Use Plain English to Improve Your Writing
April 15, 2021
We’ve seen it before. The beginning of a business prospectus that goes something like this:
No person has been authorized to give any information or make any representation herewith other than those contained or incorporated by reference in this joint proxy statement/prospectus. And if given or made, such information…
You’ve stopped reading, haven’t you?
What if I wrote:
You should only rely on the information contained in this document. We have not authorized anyone to provide you with information that is different.
Plain English in business writing is essential when you have a limited amount of time to engage your audience and convey a message. Plain English uses everyday words, short sentences, active voice, and personal pronouns that speak directly to your audience.
The principles sound simple, but it’s surprising how easily long-form copy can slide into the myrrh of plodding verbosity, forcing readers to cry out for something more palatable. I hear you!
What we are talking about when we use the term “plain English” is functional writing. Writing that is easy to digest, easy to translate, and free of jargon. Writing in plain English is not always as easy as it sounds, especially in the world of business where new catchcries and the latest trends can give us all a headache while we try and work out what is actually being said.
I used to work with a colleague who spoke in a language that few could understand. It was “English,” but I found myself translating for other colleagues as they furtively glanced sideways at me and quietly asked, “What did he say?” It went something like this:
We’re not talking rocks and boulders here. It’ll take a paradigm shift to move away from looking for rainbows and unicorns when we should be playing in the sandpit and prototyping.
It’s not hard to understand. We need to focus on generating our ideas rather than looking for quick solutions.
By applying the rules of plain English and addressing some of the common problems, your writing will improve dramatically, as will your communication with colleagues, clients, and customers. There is no magic formula, and it would be counterproductive to create a plain English template, but there are clear ways to cut to the chase. Here are six ways to help improve your use of plain English.
Use the Active Voice and Make Your Verbs Strong
There’s nothing grammatically incorrect with using passive voice, but it can hinder clarity.
Let’s take a quick refresher on the active and passive voice.
In the active voice, the subject goes before the verb.
Example: “The Council approved the program.” Here, the verb is “approved,” and the subject or agent is the Council.
In passive voice, the subject or agent comes after the verb.
Example: The program was approved by the Council.
So, what’s wrong with using the passive voice? Nothing, technically, but it doesn’t inspire your readers to keep reading. When the object, or in this case “the program,” begins the sentence we have to wait and see what happens next.
Readers understand sentences in the active voice more quickly in English because it follows how we think and process information. Passive voice is the enemy of concise, clear writing because it creates ambiguity.
I’m not advocating a ban on using the passive voice, but use it sparingly. The passive voice may make sense when the person or thing performing the action is secondary to the subject, who plays a starring role. For example: “Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers…” Here, insulin is the hero and the focus of the sentence, not the researchers.
Have a good reason for using the passive voice, and if in doubt choose the active voice.
Use the Active Voice With Strong Verbs
Using strong verbs is guaranteed to energize your writing. When you start to edit your writing, try highlighting all the verbs. It will give you a good indication of the ones that need changing from weak to strong.
Before (passive voice, weak verb)
The preceding rates table is intended to assist clients in understanding the costs and expenses that will be incurred.
After (active voice, strong verb)
This table describes the fees and expenses that you may pay.
Charles Baxter sums it up nicely:
There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake, and when you say, ‘Mistakes were made,’ you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel.
― Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction
Write in Clear, Short Sentences
Avoid the run-ons
The point of any nonfiction writing is to be read and understood. You want your readers to comprehend the words on the page and make a response. This doesn’t mean that you have to dumb down your writing.
Just be smart about the words you use. When sentences become too complex, or have more than one idea, our eyes glaze over. The brain fails to comprehend, and we ask ourselves―how could anyone have published this?
Research from the American Press Institute confirms that the longer your sentence, the less readers will understand. When the average sentence was less than eight words long, readers understood 100% of the writing. At 14 words, comprehension dropped to 90%. In sentences of 43 words or more, comprehension dropped to a staggering 10%.
Given this information, the period or full stop should be the most common punctuation mark on the page. We should move from this:
The following description encompasses all the material terms and conditions of the product offered hereby and supplements these conditions with additional requirements under the general terms and conditions of the said accompanying product.
We provide information to you about the product in the terms and conditions. Any additional information can be found in the general terms supplied with the product.
In the words of William Zinsser:
There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.
Replace Jargon With Common Words
Ambiguity is the enemy of any nonfiction writing. Foggy language will obscure meaning and the reader will have to spend time and energy deciphering it. Take the following example of a BBC job ad for a “Head of Change” (whatever that means):
The successful candidate will “influence the success of the Terms and Conditions program with far-reaching impacts” while also “leveraging opportunities for benefits.” The “Head of Change” must “engage senior stakeholders to understand change impacts” and ensure that the “change environment is understood.”
I only wish I understood what that change environment needed me to understand in order to change the impacts of the environment while I also acted as a role model for “good practice change management competencies and behaviours.”
The job description ran for four, A4 pages. The unfortunate soul who wrote the job ad was a gold class member of the Jargonaut Club.
To improve your writing, avoid using confusing or overly formal language that you’d never use in a face-to face conversation. We have to think hard about what we’re going to say, why we’re saying it, and who’s going to read it.
Here are some helpful suggestions to cut to the chase.
At the present time
On the grounds that
As a result of
By virtue of the fact
In spite of the fact that
At an early date
Come to a decision as to
Be cognizant of
Give consideration to
It is often the case that
Is of the opinion
Here are some helpful suggestions to cut to the chase.
Use Personal Pronouns
If you want to connect to your audience, drop the formality.
No matter how complex your writing is, if you use personal pronouns, the clarity and appeal of your writing will dramatically improve. Here’s why:
Personal pronouns help your readers’ comprehension because they pinpoint what applies to them.
- They allow you to speak directly to your reader.
- They help you to write in everyday language.
- They keep sentences short.
- Use first person plural (we, us, our, ours) and second person singular (you, your, yours).
Using personal pronouns creates a desired connection between you and your audience. They contribute to the sense that you are sincere and authentic in your writing. In personalizing your writing, readers will relate easily to your ideas and conversational tone, which can only enhance the impact of your writing.
Edit Like You’ve Said It
Quality work will come from editing and polishing your draft. Then, from doing it again and again (or you could just hire a professional).
- Read aloud: This will help you question whether your words make sense. If you’ve written sentences that you would never say in a normal conversation, it’s time to edit. Reading aloud also gives you a sense of the pace and rhythm of your writing. Is it easy to read aloud, or do you find yourself waiting in agony for the next breath?
- Set the piece aside: This will give you time to create some space between you and the words that have been swimming around in your head. You’ll view the piece with fresh eyes.
- Print it out: If you have been staring at the same piece for hours on end, you will start to miss obvious mistakes. Even changing the font on the screen will help you to refocus if you don’t want to waste paper.
Editing is like peeling an onion — you have to peel back the layers to get to the core of meaning. In other words, there’ll be tears along the way, but the result will be worth it.
Plain English Should Be the Norm
I’ll defer to one of the great masters, Aristotle:
Clearness is secured by using the words … that are current and ordinary.
Language that is more concrete and specific creates vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. The clearer the words, the clearer the meaning.
Writing in plain English is more than just using fewer words to convey your point. It requires careful consideration of every word, phrase, and sentence. This attention to detail will create a piece of writing with high readability that appeals to a wide audience.
Writing to create clear, concise, readable copy takes hard work, but it is worth the effort.
So, before you are tempted to write:
I am desirous of purchasing two hundred, humped, ruminant, Bactrian quadrupeds of the genus camelus in a procurement transaction…
Remember, you only want to buy 200 camels.