Sufi wisdom to help us write in plain English

Lesley Hanes | May 13, 2015

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?’

Image, three Sufi dancers whirling.

Write honestly to build trust

To go through the first gate, we need to write honestly. Choosing plain English words helps us do that.

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.

Image, Zig Ziglar quote about honesty in business.

Write concisely to suit online readers

The second gate is about necessity. Plain English principles tell us to use only the words we really need and to focus on our main messages.

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.

Image, how people read online.

Write kindly to be noticed

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.

Pass through the wisdom gates to write in plain English

So put your writing through the three wisdom gates. If you pass, the chances are high that you’re writing in plain English and reaching your readers.

Image, archways over stone corridor.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.