Using plain English

I have lots of conversations with people at work about using plain English. It seems as though everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but people are less sure how to go about it, and even more importantly, how to get other people to use plain English instead of ‘government speak’. I work in a government organisation, so we see plenty of examples of long wordy documents filled with jargon and buzzwords.

It’s worthwhile thinking about why people don’t use plain English. Apart from people wanting to hide their true purpose, many people think that they need to write in a stuffy convoluted way in order to sound ‘professional’. This is far from true. Being professional is about being clear and writing clearly can be hard work.

As Woody Guthrie said… “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make something simple.”

So next time you start writing something, think about how you make yourself as clear as possible. If you’re writing an important document or email, get someone else to read it before you send it. Be open to feedback about how you can improve your writing and practice as much as you can.

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What should you be reading to improve your writing skills?

Plain English Handbook

Plain English Handbook (Photo credit: arellis49)

If you want to improve your writing skills then the first thing you need to do is write. And then write some more. This is the advice that you usually get from writing books and I agree that the best way to hone your skills is to practise as much as you can. Sadly, you can’t really avoid the fact that you need to work hard to be good at something. But you also need to get feedback on your writing and it’s not usually helpful to get feedback from friends and relatives. They are either too harsh or too kind. They never tell you what is wrong with your work or how you can improve your writing, but perhaps they dont know exactly what is needed. This is where writing books come in. They probably aren’t a substitute for a really good writing teacher but they can help you a lot.

It’s hard to nominate my favourite writing book. I have quite a few and like my children, I love them equally, so I will have to give you a small list of my favourites. My number one is probably Paula Rocque’s book called ‘On writing Well‘. This is a great little book which gives plenty of practical advice. Paula covers topics such as cutting wordiness and using the right word.

My second favourite (for the great technical advice) is by an Australian called Neil James. Neil is the head of the Plain English Foundation and has written a great book called ‘Writing at work” which is a terribly useful and surprisingly readable book. By that I mean that the book not only gives good technical advice but is full of interesting information.

My third pick is Brilliant Copywriting  which will help you write persuasively. I found this book to be funny, entertaining and helpful. If you are writing to persuade (and aren’t we all doing that in some shape or form) then this book will help you craft your message. There’s lots of good advice and the book itself is very enjoyable to read.

So these are my picks for today. I hope you find this useful, but if you disagree or have other books to recommend, feel free to comment.

Three tips for clear writing

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?’

http://talknormal.co.uk/the-book/

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.

An image to illustrate weasel words on Wikiped...

* ‘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