What are you trying to say - get to the heart of your message

While my tips for writing or editing in a plain English style have become a default part of the way I work on certain kinds of content, these tips only take me so far. 

Sure, follow and action these tips too and they’ll make your content more concise, easier to read and comprehend. But can you take it one step further and dig deeper into what you’re trying to say?

Editing plain English content is not just about turning a sentence into a bullet list to improve its readability or switching from the passive voice to the active voice to make it sound less bureaucratic.

You have to get right to the heart of what it is you’re trying to say. And sometimes that demands a full rewrite of a sentence, paragraph or even the whole page rather than tweaking a sentence and a few words here and there.

Example of applying plain English editing tips

My entry to the online world in the 1990s was as a UX designer. Most of the clients I worked with were local councils. They are mighty complex beasts! I don’t think there’s any other kind of organisation on the planet more complex than a local council. They serve a wide audience across so many different areas.

One of the most common information requests from residents was always about rubbish collection days.

And rubbish collection day has always been my son’s favourite!

So I chose the following text is an excerpt from my former local council about their rubbish collection days. It’s the first two paragraphs of text.


“It’s important that your recycling bin and green waste bin are placed out on the correct day, as they are collected on alternate weeks.

You will need to place your bins out before 6am on the day of collection. You will need to place you bins 1 metre apart from each other and clear of trees, light and power poles, parked vehicles and driveways. If you live in a court, place your bins on the straight section of the road near the court.

Wyndham City, Bin Collection 


The original stats for the readability of the page via VisibleThread are:

Long sentences: 50%
Passive voice: 25%
Readability: 78
Grade level: 7.3

Readability results

To be fair, the source text isn’t long enough to give it a truly accurate score. You need at least 300 words for a more accurate analysis. This excerpt is only 83 words.

And as you can see, the readability score and grade level is already good. I usually aim for a readability score of more than 50 and a Grade level or 8 or less. Sure, the long sentences and passive voice need some work, but with so little text, it will only be 1 or 2 instances of each. That won’t be hard to fix.

Breaking the bulky paragraph into shorter sentences will add some white space around the text and make it easier to read.

How I would apply plain English principles

If I were tasked with giving this a plain English overhaul, I would:

  • put the things you must do to ensure your rubbish is collected easily into a bullet list
  • shorten sentences and add more paragraph marks
  • reduce the number of times ‘you will need to’ is used
  • check the style guide for how to present time and measurements
  • delete the redundant phrase ‘It’s important…’

The content would then look more like this:


“Put your recycling bin and green waste bin out on the correct day.

We collect these bins on alternate weeks.

You must put your bins out before 6am on the day we collect your waste and recycling.

Place your bins 1 metre apart and clear of:

    • trees
    • light and power poles
    • parked vehicles
    • driveways.

If you live in a court, put your bins on the straight section of the road near the court.”


Readability scores improved to:

Long sentences: 0%
Passive voice: 0%
Readability: 90/100
Grade level: 3.2

Readability scores after my first edit

But applying plain English editing tips is not enough

While I think the content has improved even without referring to VisibleThread’s algorithmic scores, I’m still not satisfied this is the best it can be.

Will everyone who wants to know about their bin collection know what ‘alternative weeks’ means?

Is the information about recycling and green bins the most important information?

Perhaps one of Council’s biggest gripes is that people don’t put their bins out properly, making it harder for workers to empty them into the garbage trucks. That’s why they’ve put this information at the top of their page when I would think people would be more inclined to want to know when their rubbish is being collected.

This is a classic conundrum of how to marry user needs and business goals.

To figure this out, I would look for evidence. I would ask the staff from the waste management area if how residents place their bins by the curb is a significant issue and what evidence they have to back this up. I’d check the call centre logs to see if ‘bin days’ is a top enquiry. Then I would have a better picture of what content needs to be most prominent.

Taking an evidence-based approach helps you marry user needs and business goals.

Diving deeper into this extract and trying to figure out exactly Council is trying to say, I have made the following changes:

  • restructured the information so the priority has shifted to making sure residents know how to put out their bins properly
  • added a subheading to draw attention to the recycling and green waste bins
  • changed ‘alternate weeks’ into something easier to understand
  • added a call to action button to encourage residents to find out their recycling or green waste collection day

“Put your bins out before 6am on the day we collect your waste and recycling.

Place your bins 1 metre apart and clear of:

    • trees
    • light and power poles
    • parked vehicles
    • driveways.

If you live in a court, put your bins on the straight section of the road near the court.

Recycling and green waste bins

We collect your recycling bin one week and green waste bin the next.

Put your recycling bin and green waste bin out on the right day.

<Find your bin collection days>”


The content has morphed significantly from the original version to this final, edited excerpt, but I think it says what Council is trying to say in a much clearer way.

Here are the VisibleThread readability scores.

Long sentences: 0%
Passive voice: 0%
Readability: 93/100
Grade level: 2.2

Do you agree with my changes? What would you do differently?

What are you trying to say? Get to the heart of your content so it can truly shine.
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