Keeping it Simple with Plain English

There is no point in writing if your target audience don’t understand what you’re trying to say. If the language you use is difficult to understand, your readers could get confused and frustrated and be left with a negative impression. Easy-to-understand language is key. This is where writing in plain English comes in.

What is plain English?

Plain English is a style of writing that is clear, concise and easy to understand. Look at the following sentences:

‘Should patrons wish to purchase a carbonated beverage, we ask that you retain the receipt.’

‘If you buy a fizzy drink, please keep the receipt.’

The second is much friendlier, less intimidating and you don’t need a PhD to know exactly what it’s talking about!

For comparison, take a look at how I could have written the first couple of sentences in this article:

‘There is no point in inditing if your target audience do not understand what you’re endeavoring to verbally express. If the language you utilize is arduous to decipher, your readers could get confounded and left with a negative impression.’

Yuck! I made these sentences using the Complex Sentence Generator – a fun little tool that shows you what not to do. It just sounds way too wordy and just doesn’t use the same language that most people use in their everyday lives.

How to write in plain English

The key to writing in plain English is to keep your reader in mind at all times. They want to read text that sounds like it was written by a human, not a robot or a character from Shakespeare!

Here are some tips on how to give your writing the human touch:

  • Use short words. There’s no point using ‘commencement’ when ‘start’ is both easier to read and easier to write.
  • Avoid foreign words. Not everyone will be familiar with foreign words and phrases, and readers don’t want to reach for the dictionary every sentence! ‘Call us vis-à-vis the meeting’ should be replaced with ‘call us regarding the meeting’. Or even better, ‘call us about the meeting’.
  • Use short sentences. Have a look at this 239-word sentence – it would be a lot easier to read if the writer broke it into ten or more shorter sentences!

Tools to help make your writing simpler

Once you’ve written what you have to say, you can run the text though an online tool to check how easy it is to read.

I tried Hemingway App. It’s a tool that highlights exactly where your writing could be improved and tells you the level of education needed to understand the text. It rated the first couple of sentences of this article as grade 10 – which is pretty much the level the programme recommends.

I used it with the complex version of the sentences that the Complex Sentence Generator produced. Hemingway App reckoned that a reader would need a grade 14 education level to understand this version of the text – which is higher than recommended.

When should I use plain English?

You should aim to make your writing easy to understand at all times, but it is especially important when:

  • Giving instructions
  • Writing for people with low literacy levels
  • Writing for people whose first language is not English.

Examples of easy-to-understand writing

If you want to take a look at some examples of simple writing, head over to the Simple English Wikipedia. Here, editors are working hard to create accessible versions of every Wikipedia article. This is a great example of using simple language to write about complex ideas. There is even a Wikipedia article on ‘How to write in simple English’.

There is a Plain English Campaign dedicated to making communication clearer and simpler. They produce free guides on how to write in plain English, and provide some fun examples of how long-winded sentences can be brought straight to the point. They also have a useful ‘A-Z of alternative words’ where you can find out how to replace a complicated phrase with a short and simple word.

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