I don’t usually go back in time to find writing advice, but there’s an old Sufi saying about speaking that I reckon works for writing. If we just change one word in the saying — from ‘speak’ to ‘write’ — then this ancient wisdom can help us to write in plain English.
Before you write, let your words pass through three gates.
At the first gate, ask yourself: ‘Is it true?’
At the second gate ask: ‘Is it necessary?’
At the third gate ask: ‘Is it kind?’
Precise words in their simplest form are more easily understood.
According to one study, people find simple sentences more honest.
Helen Owen, a psychology PhD student from Otago University, ran experiments to find out how people process writing. She discovered that:
… the writer of a straight-forward, concise statement is perceived as more self-reflective and more likeable, which influences how truthful we find their statement to be.
Being real builds trust and trust builds loyalty from your customers, readers, or community.
Being concise and focused works well online where people skim-read quickly.
Concise content also suits mobile devices, where space is limited. Google ranks content highly if it’s mobile-friendly. So when necessity guides our writing choices, our odds of being found and read are greater.
To go through the third gate, we need to be kind. Plain English principles tell us to think of our readers’ needs. What questions do they want answered? How can we help them in their work or lives?
When we put our readers first, we’re being kind. We’re respecting their time and attention. Turns out we’re also more likely to get it. When content is relevant and useful it shows up higher in search results and gets shared more.
PS Writing this blog post made me pretty nervous. Did I set the bar too high and fail to live up to this ancient wisdom? What helps you write in plain English? Your comments please!