Write less, say more: the plain English guide for Government communicators
As a Government communicator, it’s important to get your message across simply and clearly. The best way to do this is by using plain English.
According to the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), plain English means using simpler and more direct language. It’s not about ‘dumbing down’ information but instead writing with your reader in mind, using the right tone of voice that is clear and concise.
Plain English is particularly important for government communicators as it helps people make decisions and builds trust. It is also faster to write and quicker to read, and gets your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way.
Using more common words in your writing also improves the accessibility and readability of your content, making it easily understood by readers whose first language is not English, or those with literacy difficulties or vision impairment.
In this blog, we share simple strategies for government communicators, to enhance your content and help you write in plain English.
How to write in plain English
Keep sentences short
The average sentence length for clear writing is 15 to 20 words. Using shorter sentences will also minimise punctuation and keep your writing clear. However, you shouldn’t make every sentence the same length. Be punchy and vary your writing by mixing up short sentences with longer ones. Also stick to one main idea per sentence and one other related point.
Use the active voice
The active voice is all about verbs. Using active verbs makes your sentences direct and dynamic and gives your writing a conversational tone that is engaging and easy to understand.
In sentences using active verbs, the subject comes before the verb. This helps the reader know exactly what the subject is doing. For example:
The cat (subject) sat on (verb) the mat (object).
This doesn’t mean you should always avoid the passive voice. Sometimes it’s more appropriate to write passively when making something less hostile, avoiding blame or when you don’t know who or what the subject does.
In plain English, pronouns are your pals. Speak directly to the reader by using pronouns such as ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘I’. This will avoid stuffy writing and ensure your message is conveyed in a more friendly, helpful and human way.
Use everyday words
Simply put, never use a long word where a short one will do. While big words might sound impressive, they don’t make sense to the reader. It’s important to write exactly what you mean using common words. If you must use jargon, specialised terms or abbreviations, always explain what they mean or spell them out.
The DTA recommends writing for an age 9 audience to ensure your content is understood by everyone. To check if you’re writing at an appropriate level, Microsoft Word has an in-built readability checker, or there are plenty of free ones available online.
You can also check out the A-Z of plain English for alternative words to use.
Think about structure
People are much more inclined to scan content nowadays, so the structure of your content is important. Headings are a great way to break up your content and make it more scannable, while lists are helpful for presenting complex or multiple pieces of information more simply.
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Plain English in practice
To see how effective plain English can be, let’s look at the examples below.
It is important you read the notes, advice and information detailed opposite then complete the form overleaf (all sections) prior to its immediate return to the Council by way of the envelope provided.
Example 1 is long and wordy, which can make it hard for the reader to immediately understand the message. The use of uncommon words can also make them turn off and stop reading. A simpler version could be rewritten as:
Read the notes opposite before you fill in the form. Please send your completed form back to us as soon as possible in the envelope provided.
Breaking the message into two sentences helps the reader understand the message immediately. Active language also gives them clear directions about what they are required to do.
To effect enrolment, students must complete all relevant sections of their enrolment form and sign the declaration on the form. The Higher Education Contribution Scheme payment option form must be completed and returned with the enrolment form.
Example 2 is written in third person, which makes the writing stuffy and can lead to disengaged readers. It also uses uncommon words that may be unfamiliar to readers. A simpler version could be rewritten as:
Please return your enrolment form before term starts on 3 February.
Using pronouns makes the message more personal and engaging to the reader. Replacing big words with those that are more common ensures readers know what they need to do. It also simplifies and shortens the message, making it easier to understand.
These mistakes should be rectified at the earliest convenience.
While example 3 is a short sentence, it uses uncommon words that may be hard for the reader to understand. A simpler version could be rewritten as:
You should correct your mistakes as soon as you can.
The use of common, everyday words makes the message immediately clear for the reader. Pronouns also personalise the content and make it more engaging.
Plain English is an important writing skill that can lead to better stakeholder engagement and more relevant and effective communication. Using the strategies and plain English tips in this blog will ensure you write in a way that is clear and easily understood by everyone.
Also published on Medium.
21 May, 2019