My 7 principles for plain writing

A black background with a pen and pencil

Earlier this week, my colleagues Shannon and I ran a session on plain writing.

In my opinion, every organisation or individual that is engaging with a broad audience should be incorporating plain writing into how it communicates. That’s particularly important for an organisation like Uniting, for many reasons. I’ll give you three.

We deal with a wide range of people with different levels of reading skill. We have many consumers for whom English is a second, third, maybe even fourth language. Some have not completed high school education. Some have Acquired Brain Injury or a disability that impacts their capacity to communicate.

Beyond this group, we are dealing with many people experiencing stress and trauma. Neuroscience tells us that when the amygdala takes over, cognitive higher order processing skills decline. So at the times when people come to us, they need information to be clear, concise and useful.

Thirdly, how an organisation communicates says a lot about who they are. We want to walk alongside people and support them, so we have to talk to them in a way that reflects that, and not sound like some government official or university professor.

So if we want to use plain writing, where do we start? I came up with 7 key principles. The idea is, if you think about these as you write, you are in a good place to be writing in a straightforward plain way.

A bit of a disclaimer – plain writing takes effort. I’ve made suggestions for better versions in examples below, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best version. There are always possible improvements!

Use short sentences

The example we used in the session was

The Alcohol & Drug Foundation’s (ADF) Drug Facts service provides easy access to information about AOD, including the prevention of related harms, with a range of free resources and publications accessible via the Drug Facts website, an SMS service and a telephone and email information line. 

This sentence comes up as Grade 15 on the Automated Readability Index used in the Hemingway App (more about that later).

Never mind anything else, if we can chop it into more sentences, we bring down the reading age:

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s Drug Facts service provides easy access to information about AOD. This includes preventing related harms. They provide a range of free resources and publications. These are accessible via the Drug Facts website, an SMS service and a telephone and email information line.​ (4 sentences – Grade 10)

And in line with Thomas Jefferson’s view that “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do” we can simplify the language while still having fewer sentences.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s Drug Facts service provides information about AOD. This includes preventing related harms. Their free resources and publications are accessible via the Drug Facts website, an SMS service and a telephone/email information line.​ (3 sentences – Grade 9)

Use active words

There are two main aspects to this. The first is avoiding the passive voice, which sounds indirect and doesn’t take responsibility. The second is to use verbs rather than nouns.

Let’s look at an example.

The recruitment of a disability support worker will shortly be started.

“be started” is in passive voice – we don’t know who is doing the recruiting

“the recruitment of” uses a noun where a perfectly good verb is available.

So this sentence is much plainer if you say:

Uniting will soon start recruiting a disability support worker.

Stand up for your ideas

This is a huge bug-bear of mine. How often have you seen a sentence something like this?

The project aims to provide support for people experiencing homelessness

To me, it sounds a bit weaselly – like we don’t have the courage of our convictions. I am particularly hard on this in media releases. If we aren’t prepared to stand up for what we are going to achieve, how can we expect anyone else to believe us? This sentence is better as:

The project works with people experiencing homelessness

Talk directly to your audience

Principle 1 about avoiding passive voice covers this a bit, but here we are going further. Understanding who your primary audience is, what they already know about you and what they need from you will help you hit the right note. This last point is particularly important – it’s not about everything you have to tell them, but what they will find most important.

Limit your use of jargon, buzzwords and acronyms

Whatever line of work you’re in, there will be words and phrases that mean something to you that go completely over the heads of others. It’s vital to sense-check your writing to make sure it will make sense to anyone that reads it. I’m not saying never use jargon – sometimes you might have to. But make sure its meaning is clear if you do.

Get your important messages in early

The sort of writing we are talking about here isn’t academic writing or narrative fiction. We don’t have to take the reader on a journey, or make our case. We just have to tell them what they need to know. So get your important message in first and provide any necessary detail or background lower down in the piece. Put the good stuff in the shop window, not the storeroom!

Be clear about what you mean

I love this quote from Qunitilian “One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand“.

Take the sentence

My mother never made chocolate cake, which we all hated.

It is open to few different intepretations. One is

My mother never made chocolate cake, because we all hated it.

But another, very different, interpretation is

My mother never made chocolate cake. We hated that we never got it. Why couldn’t she bake like everyone else’s mother?

So when you’re writing, take time to think about whether the words could be read in a way that is different from how you intended.

Tools and resources

So those are the 7 principles I use. There are tools out there that are very helpful. I use Hemingway, an online editing tool that points out where you could make improvements and gives you a reading grade. This post comes in at Grade 7, by the way!

If you use Microsoft Word, the in-built Editor provides suggestions, and you can set it to a Casual, Formal or Professional style of writing.

There are resources around the internet, especially from organisations like the Plain English Foundation, the Plain English campaign, or my translator colleagues at the European Commission.

And I’ve put together a graphic with the principles for handy reference.

A final tip – read your writing out loud. That’s will help you pick up where the writing is clunky, where it could be misinterpreted and if you have long sentences.

If you’ve got a top tip for plain writing you’re happy to share, I’d love to hear it.

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen, living in Melbourne, Australia. I head up the Community and External Relations division at Uniting Vic.Tas, a large community services organisation. I went to the London School of Economics and University of Melbourne. In 2008 I took part in the Eisenhower Fellowship Multination Programme, the subject of 3 of my blogs. You can find me on Twitter as @euonymblog or @antoniam

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