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How to Write in Plain English Content Creators Guide

Posted by Isobel Rogers on Sep 18, 2022 | 

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What is Plain English?

Plain English is English that’s friendly to read. Texts written in plain English are made to suit the reader. They should be:

Many people are confused about why we use plain English. There’s a lot of information about it which is not true. Because of this, many people do not use it. So, let’s clear up the facts.

Plain English is not:

Plain English is:

We have written this blog post in plain English as an example.

Who is Plain English For?

Plain English is for everyone. Sometimes, people think plain English is only for people with reading difficulties. However, this is not true. Why you should write in plain English:

Using plain English is also a good business move. Research shows that 80% of people prefer reading sentences written in plain English. It has been shown that when companies give clear and concise information, they receive fewer questions and complaints.

How to Write in Plain English

Keep Your Sentences Short

If you think your sentences could be shorter, then they probably can. Be harsh. Cut the words you do not need. Most long sentences can be split into two by using a full stop instead of a comma.

A clear sentence is about 15-20 words. Of course, your sentence can be shorter than this. However, your sentence should not go over 25 words. It’s confusing and difficult to read.

There are a few ways to make your sentences shorter. Often, you can remove the word "that" from your sentences. Most of the time, they are not needed. Only do this if your sentence still makes sense without it. You can also shorten wordy phrases.

For example:

Short sentences do not need to look the same. Using the same sentence length every time gets boring. Change it up. Use a mix of shorter and longer sentences. This will make your text flow better which keeps people reading.

Choose Simple Words

Long words are not needed to put your point across. Usually, there’s a shorter word with the same meaning that you can use instead. When writing, think about the reader. Will most people understand your writing? If not, then use a thesaurus for simpler phrases. If you would not use a word when talking to someone, then do not use it.

Using simpler words does not mean you should change the meaning of your text. Just explain the content in the simplest way possible. Plain English is not about oversimplifying information; it takes more knowledge to explain complicated ideas clearly.

Avoid jargon. Most people will not understand it. If you cannot avoid using a technical term, then explain what the word means. Remember, if people do not understand you then they are less likely to trust you.

Put Important Information First

People are short on time these days. Reading for a long time to find important information is annoying. So, always put the important information first. Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ method. For this, start with the essential information. Essential information is:

Then, write the less important information. After that, only write information that’s nice to know. These will be facts such as background details. Most people only scan text. If you put important information first, people are less likely to miss it.

Use Headers and Lists

Headers and lists make information easy to find. They’re a great way to organize information and can break down big bits of text.

Your headers should be clear and to the point. Label exactly what the paragraph will be talking about. This avoids confusion and saves your reader time. Make sure that your headers are noticeably bigger than the body text. It’s also a good idea to put them in bold. This makes them easy to identify.

Using bullet points helps you avoid long sentences. They also make information easier to understand. Use one bullet point per point of information. However, only use these when you need to. If it is not for a list, then just write using normal sentences.

Avoid Negative Contractions

A contraction is when two or more words are shortened into one word. These are usually joined together with an apostrophe. A negative contraction is when the word not is added to a verb.

For example:

or

People with reading difficulties may find these confusing. Often, they read the word as the opposite. Therefore, we should avoid using them. Just use the original words on their own. For example, instead of using can’t use cannot.

Avoid Conditional Contractions

Conditional contractions are like negative contractions. But they are used when something could or should have happened. These include:

It has been shown that people with reading difficulties find these harder to recognize. Instead, just use the separate words before they were joined. For example, use could have instead of could’ve.

Use Active Voice

Active voice is when the subject is performing an action. You can use active voice by using a simple English sentence structure which is: Subject + verb + object.

For example:

Darren sat on the chair.

The subject is the thing performing the action in a sentence. This can be a place, a person, or a thing. In this case, the subject is Darren.

The verb describes what the subject is doing. In this case, Darren has sat down.

The object is who or what the action is being done to. In this case, the object is a chair.

Passive voice is when the position of the subject and the object are switched over. This is: Object + verb + subject.

For example:

The chair was sat on by Darren.

Usually, passive voice adds in the words was or were to your sentence. Using passive voice makes your sentences longer and more formal. Most of the time, it just sounds awkward. We want our readers to feel comfortable. Active voice sounds more like a friendly conversation. It keeps things modern and straight to the point.

Give Instructions

Plain English should be straightforward. Many people are scared this will sound rude. But giving instructions is not something to be scared of. It keeps your writing short and sweet. Besides, it means people are more likely to follow your instructions.

For example:

When trying to sound polite, we often add in too many words. But this is not needed. Giving instructions does not sound rude, it just sounds efficient.

Use Pronouns

We’re in this together. Make that known. Use ‘you’, ‘we’, and ‘I’ when you’re writing. It feels more personal, and it keeps your word count down. Using phrases such as “the customer” and “the applicant” makes your sentences sound too formal. You want your writing to sound like someone’s on the other end of the screen.

Avoid Nominalization

A nominalization is when a word that is not a noun is changed into a noun. In other words, it’s something that is not an object such as an emotion, a technique, or a process. These are usually words that end in -tion, -ment, or -ance (just to name a few).

For example:

Nominalizations often replace the original verb. However, they are longer and more confusing to read than the original verb.

With nominalization:

Without nominalization:

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First posted Sep 2022