Writing in Plain English - tips to write clearly and concisely

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 22/07/2020
Plain English writing - clear and concise

Anyone who isn’t a professional writer (and even some who are!) can fall into the habit of writing badly. It’s partly a lack of confidence, and partly because we see lots of poor writing in the professional and corporate worlds. Instead of asking “What does this actually mean?” we doggedly imitate.

But there is an alternative. Instead of using meaningless phrases like ‘facilitating ongoing implementation’ in a lifeless report or dull blog post, you can get a reputation as a good communicator by writing in plain English.

Let's look at how to write plain English — ‘plain’ in the sense of being to the point, engaging and clear.

Precise vocabulary and expression

To begin with, plain English is not ‘dumbed-down English’. It’s confident in its clarity, more rewarding to write and read, and friendlier.

The key to writing plain English is choosing vocabulary and expressions that communicate opinions, facts and arguments precisely.

For example, these two sentences say the same thing, but only the second one uses plain English:

1. To actualise next-level competitiveness, it’s vital to leverage off our current best practices and core staff skillset to find agile, nimble solutions going forward.

2. To improve, we need to focus on what we do well.

Pretentious business phrases are a sure sign the writer is not in control of their thoughts, and is using them as a mask. The second sentence has had the jargon removed, and it uses half as many words as the first.

Naturally, every workplace has jargon, whether it’s the legal jargon of the courts or the persuasive patter of a car salesman. But jargon lets you down when it obscures communication - and sentence one contains language that’s meaningless.

What is “best practice” or “next-level competitiveness”? What are “agile, nimble solutions”? The reader is none the wiser.

Instead of “best practice” the writer could specify “ISO 9001 standard compliance”, describing a known level of management competency.

Rather than “agile, nimble solutions”, why not “we need automation to improve response times”. This flags a problem and a plausible solution.

Using dynamic language

Perhaps the most famous advocate of plain English was Nineteen eighty-four author George Orwell.

In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, he blamed bad English on politicians who use language to mask truth.

Orwell believed the “scrupulous writer” should:

1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4) Never use the passive [verb] where you can use the active.

5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English alternative.

6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous!

While these rules will not work in every context — inquiring about “the bog” in a posh restaurant, for example — they do help when writing reports, blog posts and marketing material.

Using an active verb makes language dynamic. ‘The dog was bitten by the boy’ does not have the immediacy of ‘The boy bit the dog’.

‘Transitioning to the new office will be conducted by our team in the near future’ sounds better as: ‘Our team moves into the new office soon.’

Not only does the latter use an active verb, but it uses more immediate language: ‘moves’ instead of ‘transitioning’ and ‘soon’ for ‘in the near future’. Plus, it gets rid of the passive ‘conducted by’.

Print out Orwell’s six rules for plain English and stick them near your computer. Cutting the fat from your sentences will be hard at first, but your staff, clients and colleagues will thank you for it!



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