Five myths about plain English

Eleanor Meecham | February 23, 2015

Myth 1: You don’t need plain English because your readers are experts

Experts are people too. They’re probably busy, with plenty of interesting and important things to read. They may know your subject inside out, but that’s no reason to make them wade through screeds of dense prose.

When you write clearly and plainly, experts will be able to read, absorb, and use what you’ve written more quickly — saving time, money, and headaches.

Myth 2: People won’t take you seriously if you write plainly

Is it the opinion of your colleagues you’re worried about, or your customers? Whoever you’re trying to impress, communicating clearly and concisely means your reader can focus on what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it.

Readers possibly won’t notice your writing style if you’ve done a good job. But they’ll definitely notice if what you’ve written is confusing or hard to read.

You may even be considered more intelligent when you write plainly

Myth 3: You don’t need plain English because you didn’t learn it at university

If you’re no longer at university, you’re probably writing for completely different reasons now. At uni, you wrote to explain your thinking process. You revealed your conclusions at the very end of each essay, after detailing each and every idea you explored to get there. Your tutor was paid to read every word you wrote.

In business, people tend to need information quickly. Using an academic approach can mean you lose their interest, and maybe their business.

Anyway, plain English will come to universities too, in time. Just give it a few decades.

Myth 4: Plain English isn’t precise enough — it wouldn’t stand up in a court of law

The aim of plain English is to make meaning crystal clear on first reading. Writing in a simple way does not mean simplifying concepts or giving incomplete explanations. It means saying exactly what you need to say in the clearest way possible.

Complex writing that needs several readings to understand can be ambiguous. Technically, the meaning may be precise, but that’s irrelevant if the reader can’t understand it.

That’s why so many law firms are moving to a plain-language approach. Busy lawyers benefit when documents can be understood on first reading, and it makes a world of difference to the people who pay them: their clients.

Myth 5: You can’t write in plain English because you need to use technical terms

Writing in plain English doesn’t mean giving up or replacing technical terms. Some terms are essential to the topic and can’t be changed.

But the words, sentences and paragraphs packed around those terms can be written plainly. When your writing is plain overall, complex terms and concepts are easier to understand.

Tim Radford, a former editor of the Guardian, summed it up nicely: ‘No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.’

Read Tim’s manifesto for the simple scribe

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.