How to Write in Plain English Content Creators Guide

Jul 31, 2023

What is Plain English?

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

  • be straight to the point;
  • use simple language;
  • give information in an order that makes sense.

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

Plain English Myths

  • It’s boring. Writing is what you make of it. Most of the time, complicated writing is difficult to read and confusing. Simple writing is not boring writing, it’s just writing done better.
  • It’s about making your ideas simpler. The content and meaning should stay the same. The only thing that’s changing is your word choice.
  • It’s a less smart way of writing. Plain English can actually be more difficult to use. This is because you need to understand something more to explain it in fewer words.

Plain English Facts

  • It’s a clear and simple way to give important information.
  • It’s the better way to write.

This blog post is in plain English as an example.

Who Uses Plain English?

Plain English is for everyone. Some people think plain English is only for people with reading difficulties. However, this is untrue. You should write in plain English because:

  • it’s easier to understand;
  • it takes less time to read;
  • people are more likely to keep reading;
  • you can find information quickly;
  • it’s helpful for second-language speakers.

Using plain English is also a good business move. Research shows that 80% of people prefer reading sentences written in plain English. Companies get fewer complaints and questions when they give clear information.

How to Write in Plain English

Keep Your Sentences Short

If your sentences could be shorter, then do it. Be harsh. Cut words that are not needed. 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. But your sentence should not go over 25 words. This is confusing and difficult to read.

There are a few ways to make your sentences shorter. You can often remove the word ’that’ from sentences. A lot of sentences still make sense without it. However, do not do this if it changes your sentence’s meaning. You can also shorten wordy phrases.

For example:

  • In order to → To
  • Due to the fact that → Because
  • Despite the fact that → Although

Short sentences do not need to look the same. Always using the same sentence length 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

You do not need long words to get your point across. Usually, there’s a shorter word with the same meaning that works just fine. Think about the reader. Will most people understand your writing? If not, then use a thesaurus to find simpler phrases. Avoid words that you would not use in a conversation.

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 cutting information down. It takes more knowledge to explain difficult ideas clearly.

Jargon is confusing. Avoid it. If you need to use a technical term, then you must explain what it means. Throwing in difficult terms without defining them can make customers wary. People do not trust what they do not understand.

Important Information First

People are short on time these days. Reading for a long time to find important information is annoying. So you should always put it first. Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ method. Start with essential information. This includes:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • How?

Then, write other relevant information. After that, write information that’s nice to know. Most people only scan text. Putting important information first means people are less likely to miss it.

Use Headers and Lists

Headers and lists make information easy to find. They organize information and can break down big bits of text.

Your headers should be clear and to the point. Show exactly what the paragraph is 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. Bullet points are only for lists, not 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:

  • Should + Not = Shouldn’t (Shouldn’t is the contraction of should and not) or
  • Can + Not = Can’t (Can’t is the contraction of can and not)

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, use ‘cannot’ instead of ‘can’t’.

Avoid Conditional Contractions

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

  • Could’ve
  • Should’ve
  • Would’ve

It has been shown that people with reading difficulties find these harder to recognize. Use the separate words instead. 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 doing the action in a sentence. This can be a place, a person, or a thing. In this case, the subject is Darren. Verbs describe what the subject is doing. In this case, Darren 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.

Passive voice usually adds more words to your sentence. It also makes your sentences sound more formal. This can sound 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 sounds rude. 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:

  • You should try to call them → Call them
  • It’s recommended that you wear protective gear → Wear protective gear

We use too many words when we want to sound polite. This is not needed. Using fewer words is not rude, it’s just efficient.

Use Pronouns

We’re in this together. Let people know it! Use ‘you’, ‘we’, and ‘I’ in your writing. It feels more personal, and it keeps your word count down. Using phrases like “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 like 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:

  • React → Reaction
  • Engage → Engagement
  • Assess → Assessment

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

With nominalization:

  • The teacher wanted to make an assessment of the child’s progress.

Without nominalization:

  • The teacher wanted to assess the child’s progress.

Way more confusing, right? Avoid using them. They’re not needed.