How to Start Writing in Plain English
Let's first dispel a common misconception about plain English writing. Writing in plain English does not mean we delete complex information to make the document easier to understand. Documents must impart complex information for readers to make informed decisions. Using plain English presents complex information orderly and clearly so that readers have the best chance
of understanding the document's meaning.
Plain English means using only information that readers need to make informed decisions; this requires the writer to analyze and decide what to include and what to leave out. A plain English document uses words economically and at a level the audience can understand. Its sentence structure is tight. Its tone is welcoming and direct. Its design is visually appealing at a glance. A plain English document. Select documents
You may want to ask yourself these questions as you start writing in plain English:
- How long is my document?
- Will I write all of it, or only sections of it, in plain English?
- How much time do I have before I need to complete your document?
If you work for a company or organization, you will also want to gather and distribute other documents that your company has written for its readers. These documents will save you time by showing you the language your company is comfortable using. Know Your Audience
Knowing your audience is the crux of a plain English document because you need to ensure your readers can understand what you write. To write clear and understandable documents, you need to gauge the readability level of your readers.
Using whatever information is
available, you can profile your readers based on the following questions:
- What are my readers' demographicsage, income, level of education, and job experience?
- How familiar are they with my topics and terminology?
- What concepts or terminology can I safely assume they understand?
- How will they read my document for the first time? Will they read it straight through or skip around to the sections that interest them?
- Will they read my document and a competing document side by side?
- How will they use my document? What information will they look for later. Can they find this information easily?
Your readers may include individuals, businesses and institutions with different degrees of education. While your audience may include industry experts, you need to keep in mind that your least educated readers have the greatest need for a document they can understand. Some writers have faced the differing needs of their readers by making basic educational information visually distinctive from the rest of the text so that sophisticated readers can easily recognize and scan it.
After analyzing who your readers are, you can turn to the document you want to write or
rewrite. As you read what you write, consider the following
Eliminate redundant information
- Will the readers understand the language?
- Does my document highlight information that is important to readers?
- Am I excluding any important information missing?
Question the need for repeating any information. Reading the same material two or three times can bore and trouble readers. Most readers skip over paragraphs if they think they've read them before. If you cut down on repetitious paragraphs or sentences, you'll not only earn the gratitude of your reader, but you will also make your document more readable and less cluttered.
We thought it would be helpful to list the most common problems you will find in poorly written documents. Common problems in poor
- Long sentences
- Passive voice
- Weak verbs
- Superfluous words
- Legal and financial jargon
- Numerous defined terms
- Abstract words
- Unnecessary details
- Unreadable design and layout
For example, here's a common sentence found in a legal document: BEFORE:
You have not been authorized to give any information or make any representation other than those included or incorporated by reference in this joint statement, and, if given or made, such information or representation must not be relied upon as having been authorized.
Here's one possible plain English rewrite: AFTER:
You should rely only on the information in this joint statement. We have not authorized anyone to provide you with different information.
The plain English rewrite uses everyday words, active voice with strong verbs, short sentences, regular print, and personal pronouns that speak directly and succinctly to the reader.
Do you think this rewrite captures the meaning of the original? Would
you write it differently?