6 ideas to help you write in plain English

Meredith Thatcher | November 30, 2016

Ralph Brown is the founder of Skillset, a New Zealand firm that trains large organisations in the ‘soft’ skills so vital to their success. His highly entertaining session at the Clarity2016 conference was ‘The easy way to write and teach plain English’.

Ralph’s six simple ideas are ‘relevant whether you work in law, government, or business’. They’re designed to ‘help you achieve more clarity in less time’. You can use these ideas in all communications — from a simple email to a complex report. The aim is to ‘add a new focus to your writing and give you an easy way to help your colleagues’. Here are Ralph’s six ideas.

1. Focus on the reader and what they need to know

Tell the reader early on what they need to know. Keep the background for later.

Use perspective. Think about what ‘reads’ well to people who don’t speak English as a first language. Consider the sentence ‘I don’t get out of bed for less than a six’. The sentence has many meanings, even for a person who has English as their first language. In fact, the words were printed on a t-shirt after the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011.

Use clear language if you need the reader to act quickly. Consider the airport instruction ‘We request all passengers to proceed to Gate B49. The plane will be leaving in approximately 30 minutes’. Couldn’t the language be simpler?

Image, People lining up at an airport gate.

We request all passengers to proceed to Gate B49. Image by Javier Leiva / CC BY

2. Keep it simple

Eliminate unnecessary words. But feel free to add words if doing so will help the reader understand the meaning.

Avoid sentences of all the same length. Punctuate your message by inserting shorter sentences between longer sentences.

Keep sentences simple, especially if they’re long.

3. Keep the text informal, but not colloquial

Read the drama of the occasion, and pitch your language and tone to match the occasion.

Use a formality spectrum, with the most formal language at one end and colloquial language at the other end. Think of a spectrum of formal to informal words when you write. Think of a spectrum of formal to informal tone when you write.

4. Be direct, but be appropriately direct

Say what you mean and be specific.

But also think about how you would want to receive the message. Be helpfully honest, not brutally blunt.

5. Use the active voice

People struggle to separate the form of writing and style of writing from the content of the writing. Using the active voice helps to clarify this.

How can failing to use the active voice get you into trouble? Consider the shop notice that reads ‘All breakages are paid for’. This sentence is both in the passive voice and indirect. And it leaves you asking the question ‘Who is paying for the breakages?’ The statement is ambiguous and could end up costing the shop money.

6. Use a personal rather than impersonal approach

The personal approach keeps the human aspect in mind; the impersonal approach removes the human. And you always want to connect to your reader on a human level.

Ralph Brown

Image, Ralph Brown of Skillset.

Ralph Brown is the founder and managing director of Skillset New Zealand, which provides training in communication skills for large organisations. Ralph has taught his writing and editing method to numerous writers in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. He’s also written six books and more than a hundred articles on writing and psychology.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.