The ability to write in plain English is one of the most in-demand skills for communicators.
If you’re trying to write in plain English, what matters is the message you are trying to get across. As long as the message is received, it doesn’t matter how many fancy words you use.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of the world’s writers and academics were afflicted with the devastating ‘bad writing virus’. Many are still recovering to this day! Symptoms include: an affinity for long, winding sentences and an obsession with jargon.
A lot of writers think that if their writing is harder to understand, it must also be more sophisticated. They confuse complex writing with good writing. The truth is that complex language only adds complexity to already complex subjects. It makes things harder to understand for no reason.
Writing in plain English basically means ‘knowing your audience’. If you’re explaining the Theory of General Relativity to Einstein, you can probably skip some steps. But if you’re explaining it to me, you’ll definitely need to simplify things a bit (or a lot). Knowing your audience will determine what you write, and how you write it. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing because different audiences have different requirements.
If you want a crash course on ‘knowing your audience’, look no further than YouTube. WIRED Magazine has an excellent series where experts explain complex topics like quantum computing, blockchain and gravity. The series is called ‘5 Levels’, because the expert must explain the concept to five different people: a child, a teen, a college student, a grad student and an expert. You’ll notice how the expert changes their language depending on their audience.
Unfortunately, a lot of people only write for an audience of one person: themselves.
If you don’t know your audience, you’re doing yourself and your message a serious disservice. After all, complex writing is inaccessible and counterproductive. It makes people less likely to read your writing and it shuts out less-experienced readers from expanding their knowledge.
For many people, complex writing is a placeholder for actual substance. People who can’t impress others with their ideas use confusing language instead. Bad writers think their reader will be impressed by complex and convoluted writing. But if your intended reader cannot understand what you’re writing, you’re not a good writer. It’s that simple.
I thought I’d share some of my favourite tips on how to write in plain English. I will note that these rules are most relevant to non-fiction writing. Here it goes.
- Trim the fat!
In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay titled “Politics and the English Language”. The essay lists some of his pet peeves of writing, along with his own writing rules. One of those rules is the following: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
Words to live by! This is my favourite piece of writing advice.
You won’t realise how many of your words are unnecessary until you go looking for them. If something doesn’t add to your message, get rid of it.
If you can combine two words into one, do it. If you can halve the length of a sentence, do it!
- Keep it short and simple.
Always, go for the short and simple word over the long and confusing one!
If your audience is the general public, avoid jargon at all costs. There is always a simpler word that you can use instead. If your audience isn’t the general public, using jargon words can be an excusable way of saving time. You don’t need to explain every term to someone who already knows what you’re talking about.
That’s why it’s important to know your audience. You’re not going to impress someone on the street by the amount of jargon you use. You’re not going to seem smart either. All you’re going to do is frustrate and repel your reader.
If you absolutely must use a jargon word, explain what it means as you’re using it. If you use an acronym, always spell out what each of the letters stands for in the first instance.
Here’s another Orwell-ism: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
A full list of Orwell’s rules for writing can be found here.
- Get a second opinion.
The best writers in the world still pay editors to look over their work. Journalists have Editors who check their writing before it is published. I’m writing a blog about how to write in plain English, but I still got someone to ensure I was practicing what I was preaching!
No one is a perfect writer and no one is exempt from feedback. I love when I see edits on what I write. It means that there is one less mistake in my writing than there otherwise would be.
Your Editor should be someone who isn’t an expert on what you’re writing about. Pick a random person in your office and have them look over your work. That way, you can be sure that your writing makes sense to the average person.
- Limit the number of commas.
Unless you’re writing a list, you should never use more than two commas in the same sentence. For me, two is the absolute maximum. I try to keep it to just one.
The number of commas in a sentence generally dictates its complexity. Limiting the number of commas in a sentence will ensure that each sentence contains just one or two ideas.
Try not to ramble and keep your sentences short. I frequently read sentences that have more twists and turns than a rollercoaster at Disneyland. Don’t be one of those people.
Your reader shouldn’t have to be re-reading every sentence.
- Three adjectives in a row is too much.
If you want to use some adjectives to describe a noun, limit the amount to three. For me, two is the sweet spot. Anything more than three looks clunky. It’s also just lazy writing. Find some other way of adding depth and meaning to your descriptive language.
Here is an example: “this sentence is lazy, terrible, unnecessary, ugly and dreadful writing”.
- ‘Signpost’ as you write.
You’re doing something wrong if your writing looks like a long stream of consciousness. Don’t forget to add structure to your writing, and don’t forget to explicitly tell the reader what that structure will be. Don’t keep the structure of your writing to yourself.
Signposts are words or phrases that explain the structure of your writing to the reader. My favourite signposts are: firstly, secondly and thirdly.
If you’re writing in paragraphs, clearly state what each paragraph will talk about. It can even be worth explicitly stating: “now I will discuss….” or “in the next section, I will delve deeper into….”.
Some other basic signposts are:
- “In other words…”
- “In saying that…”
- “On the other hand…”
- “After all…”
- “With that in mind…”
- “For example…”
- “In simple terms…”
- “For instance…”
- “In contrast…”
- “To wrap up…”
These are all a good way to start a sentence.
In summary, writing in plain English should be the number one tool in a communicator’s toolkit. Train yourself to write to the skill level of your reader, not yourself. This means understanding your audience and tailoring your writing style to them.
If you’re writing to the general public, it’s best to follow the above six rules. There are of course other writing rules, but the six I chose are the most important (and most often forgotten).
If you’d like more information about plain-English writing, The Economist Magazine is famous for it’s Style Guide. It can be found here.
In the age of the internet, communicators must get their message across quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, so readers are unlikely to persist with difficult text. If you make it easy for them, they may just stick around.