I don’t really like the term plain English. It reminds me of a plain girl or a plain biscuit, a bit dull and unimaginative and slightly boring. Clear writing on the other hand, can be descriptive, even whimsical but it must be understandable (and therefore clear).
The need to write clearly is more than just a hobbyhorse of mine. I think that we have a responsibility to write as clearly as we can. As Tim Phillips says in his book, Talk Normal.
‘If you’re in government, isn’t it your responsibility to make your language accessible to all the people who need to understand you?’
Yes, yes and yes!
It just so happens that I do work for a government organisation and I agree 100% with this sentiment, however it can be hard to write clearly, especially about complex or serious topics.
It’s easy enough to write something simple and engaging about a new product or service – all you really need to do is write about what it can do to make your life better. Explaining the intricacies of a piece of legislation or writing a paper about a complex policy issue is much more difficult. This is where all the big words come into their own don’t they?
My friend Megan says that there are expensive words ($5000) and cheap words ($500) and that you should use the $500 words as much as possible. These are words that are short and to the point. These are not weasel words*. You should only use a $5000 word when no other word accurately conveys the point you are making.
But, I hear you cry… this is easy to say and hard to do. Well, yes and no. Here are a few pointers for you to think about when you are writing.
1. BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR MESSAGE
One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to be clear in your own mind about what you are trying to say. By this I mean that you should know exactly what the point is that you are trying to make and not be afraid to express it as simply and clearly as possible. I read a lot of documents where people just ramble on. It’s pretty obvious that they are trying to work out what their point as they write.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put your thoughts on paper in order to find out what you really think; it just means that all those words don’t necessarily need to end up in the final version.
2. VARY YOUR SENTENCE LENGTH
Secondly, you should try to vary your sentence length. It makes your writing easier to read if you use both long and short sentences. A lot of writing is unclear because the sentences run on and on forever. Keep some of them short. Yes, really short.
You should try to keep to one idea per sentence. Long dense sentences always lead to fuzzy writing.
3. THINK ABOUT YOUR READER
Thirdly, always think about your audience. Do they know what that acronym stands for? It can be terribly confusing for people when you use terms they aren’t familiar with. Don’t try to impress people with your intelligence by using language they don’t understand. Of course if you are writing for an audience of technical experts, feel free to talk the talk. They won’t mind. Just be very careful that you don’t alienate your readers by using jargon.
Are there any writing problems that you face that you would like to discuss? For example, do you need to give other people feedback on their writing and don’t know how to go about this?
I’d love to hear from you.
* ‘Weasel words’ is the title of a book by Don Watson and refers to words and phrases that are over used in the corporate world and essentially meaningless (for example: innovative approach, optimisation, going forward). See http://www.weaselwords.com.au