A quick guide to writing in plain English

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Fitness for purpose

When writing for any particular purpose, the aim is to meet an objective. To meet the objective, the language has to be fit for purpose. It’s obvious. So everyone’s using fit for purpose language, right? Wrong.

The Plain English Campaign was started in 1979, beginning a long battle against ‘gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information.’ It is interested primarily in communications between official organisations and the public, and motivated by the belief that everyone should have access to ‘clear and concise information’. Anything less risks miscommunication, misunderstanding, and even deceit.

Context, context, context

Lots of us deal with language almost all the time. Language changes and gets appropriated in different ways according to its different uses.

The language of a billboard ad is different in style and content from a leaflet about an attraction, which is different again from a blog post about a creative approach. All the while, we deploy language with the aim of solving a problem, and communicating a message.

Sense-checking tools

On the front of the Plain English Campaign’s free guide ‘How to write in plain English’, there is a list of ways to make writing clearer. It’s a brilliant starting point, and these are my favourites:

1. Keep your sentences short

  • It’s a no brainer.

2. Prefer* active verbs

Live examples:

  • Passive (bad): When passive verbs are chosen, the tone of the piece is slowed and made to sound dull (…zzz…)
  • Active (good): When you choose active verbs, you make the piece more energetic, and easier to follow.

*When I say ‘prefer’, that is what I mean. Sometimes saying something in the passive will be the clearest, most appropriate thing to do.

3. Use ‘you’ and ‘we’ when you need to

This is a great way to avoid complicated constructions with passive verbs.

4. Use words that are appropriate for the reader

Avoiding jargon is a good rule of thumb, but some times it’s necessary to use technical language. More on this in another post I think!

5. Avoid nominalisations

Nominalisations are common – and indeed useful – in academic writing. Over time, they have crept into other writing contexts where they don’t really belong. When you use nominalisations, you turn an action into an object, removing the sense of ‘doing’. Live examples:

  • Nominalisations everywhere: We had a discussion about the matter and recordings were taken*.
  • Verbs instead: We discussed the matter and recorded the meeting.

(*As you can see, nominalisations often go hand-in-hand with unnecessary passive verbs.)

6. Use lists where appropriate

Whatever your application, this too is a no-brainer, but it’s particularly important in long-form writing for the web. In situations where copy needs to be scannable, proper headings and bulleted lists are essential.

These checks help writers stick to plain English at the foundations, whatever the application of their work. (Ooh, spot the nominalisation!)

Balance: the key to solving the problem

I write for mark-making* and our clients, and you, dear reader, could be writing anything in your day-to-day activities – emails, presentations, perhaps even a comment at the bottom of this post! You and I are not held to the same standards as national governments, nor should we be. The writing we do performs different functions: it may need to persuade, excite, argue, entice, or enthral, as well as inform.

Still, it is a good idea to hold your writing up next to the labels ‘fit for purpose’ and ‘clear, concise information’, and assess what you see. Do you need to use technical language appropriate to the audience, or can you weed those words out in favour of laymen’s everyday terms?

Answering these questions is the key to producing truly fit-for-purpose work.

Written by Chloe Marshall

About markmaking*

mark-making* is an award-winning creative agency specialising in branding, campaigns and communications