Plain English writing tips

Having lived an illiterate life in South Korea for the past 2.5 years, I know what it’s like to go from basic reading skills to being expected to fill in a complex Korean bank form.

And that’s one of the reason’s why I’m a plain English advocate. I know what it’s like to not understand a letter sent home from The Monsta’s kindy or how to correctly interpret an electricity bill.

A whopping 46% of Australians don’t have the literacy and numeracy skills to successfully function in contemporary Australia. Can those people successfully interact with your website and your digital products to get the information need or complete the task they need to do? Are you bleeding customers because of it? Are your users pounding their keyboards in frustration?

The more government and other organisations use plain English to communicate with their website users, the more success Australians will have in their everyday lives.

And the more we see plain English around us in our everyday lives, the more everyone will expect it. And then the more organisations will shift towards plain English as the norm.

Plain English will become less of an unexpected delight.

What is plain English?

Plain English is content your reader understands quickly, easily, and completely.

When I talk to clients and their staff about plain English, I often get resistance. That’s because they think plain English is ‘dumbing down’ content or writing in a way that talks down to their readers. But that’s not the purpose of plain English. Not at all.

When you explain that plain English helps their readers understand something the first time they read it, they start to get it.

And once they see their content transformed from ‘bureaucrat speak’ into plain English, they really get it.

Why use plain English?

Plain English is about helping your readers and website users do the thing they need to do quickly, easily and without confusion.

I work with a lot of government clients. Their website users are not visiting their website for fun. They’re there to find information or complete a task. It’s something they HAVE to do, not something they WANT to do. I don’t fill in my Business Activity Statement (BAS) form each quarter for fun or apply for a passport because that’s how I get my kicks. Nope. These are things I HAVE to do.

Helping people find and understand the information they need is the best way to give them a positive experience. #plainenglish #ux Click To Tweet

Helping people find and understand the information they need is the best way to give them a positive experience. They might not remember how gorgeous your site looked but they will remember feeling frustrated and confused if they:

  • couldn’t find what they needed
  • couldn’t complete the task they need to do

No one wants to feel like a silly-dibby-dubby (as my 6-year-old would say).

Everyone prefers plain English. Even people with doctoral degrees would rather read plain English content over dense academic or bureaucratic text.

As well as user success, plain English content results in fewer enquiries. For a large organisation, plain English can significantly reduce the load on call centres.

Tips for writing or editing in a plain English style

Top plain English writing tips
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Want to know how to write in plain English?

While there are no fixed plain English writing guidelines or rules that must be followed, there are ways of ensuring your content is written in a plain English style.

But here are my tips for writing content that easier to understand the first time someone reads it.

Plain English tip #1 – Be concise

Use short sentences.

Avoid writing sentences more than 15 words long.

Comprehension is usually around 100% for short sentences of up to 8 words.

Comprehension drops to 90% for sentences from 9 to 14 words long.

Can you guess what it is for sentences longer than 40 words? It drops to 10%. Don’t do that to your readers.

Break longer paragraphs up into shorter sentences. It’s OK for a single sentence to be a paragraph. The more clear space you have around your text, the easier it is to read.

Plain English tip #2 – Be clear

Don’t be ambiguous.

Make sure there is no other way to interpret your message.

When we’re too close to the content, we often can’t see how others might misinterpret our message or instruction.

Ask someone else to read your content to check if your meaning is clear. Even better – user test it with your target audience and learn where people stumble.

Plain English tip #3 – Be direct

Talk directly to your reader or user.

Use words like ‘you’ and ‘your’ when talking to your reader.

Use words like “I’ or ‘we’ when talking about yourself or your organisation to your reader.

For example:

❌ The Department of Nuisances can help people with problems solutions.

✔️ We can help you solve your problem.

Plain English tip #4 – Use the active voice

Use the active voice.

Don’t hide behind the passive voice.

Bureaucrats love the passive voice because it absolves them of responsibility.

For example:

❌ The fee is charged by the Department of Nuisances.

✔️ The Department of Nuisances charges the fee.

The active voice is direct and more concise. Less words = better reader experience.

Plain English tip #5 – Use lists

Use bullet lists for general points where appropriate. Bullet lists are a great way to break up a long sentence.

Bullet lists aid scanning behaviours and draw attention. If you have a key message, a bullet list is a great place to put it.

Use numbered lists for content that is part of a process or the content has a specific order.

Plain English tip #6 – Avoid jargon

Chances are your audience won’t understand your jargon, so don’t use it.

Even if your readers or customers are in the same industry, don’t assume they’ll understand the jargon. If you’re an accountant and your content targets other accountants, then it would be fine to use commonly recognised and understood industry jargon. But if you’re an accountant writing content for your clients, don’t assume everyone knows what a CPA is or what BAS means.

Don’t use marketing buzz words either. Nothing will date your copy quicker than the latest marketing jargon. See how much ‘synergy’ you create while ‘ideating’ with your ‘peeps’.

Sometimes we’re so entrenched in our own lexicon that we don’t realise that we’re using jargon. Note the ironic use of lexicon? 🤪

Plain English tip #7 – Spell out acronyms

Write acronyms in full the first time you use one and then place the acronym in brackets after it. For example, write:

National Bank of Australia (NAB)

After that first time, then you can use NAB throughout your content. But if you write a new page of web content, spell it out again the first time you use it on that page. Don’t assume a reader has visited the other page where the acronym is spelt out in full.

You don’t need to spell out commonly accepted acronyms like ATM or SCUBA.

Plain English tip #8 – Write for your audience

Know exactly who you’re writing for. It’s all about context.

I often write content for very broad audiences. My current audience for a local government page about paying rates will have backgrounds that range from:

  • highly educated academics
  • people with low English literacy levels from culturally diverse backgrounds
  • everyone else in between

(Note that the above list was originally a very long sentence that I converted to a bullet list to make it easier to read. Walking the talk!)

That’s when I know plain English is the only way to go. That’s when I’ll don my ‘brutally plain’ badge of honour and strip the content right back. I’ll focus on saying what needs to be said in the least amount of words so it can be understood when first read.

But I’ve also recently edited content for a niche group of tertiary-educated information managers and while I applied the principles of plain English writing listed in the tips above, I ‘allowed’ some jargon to flow through. I knew that my readers would understand it in context.

Plain English tip #9 – Use digits

Use digits instead of writing out numbers, even for 1–9.

Many print-based style guides will encourage you to spell out ‘one’ through to ‘nine’ and then use digital from 10 onwards. But this is now old school thinking, especially in the online world.

Digits are easy to recognise.

It also avoids your readers confusing two with the words to or too.

Applying plain English

Are you up for the challenge of applying a plain English approach to your next writing project?

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