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Plain English

The Eight Simple Tips You Need to Write in Plain English

You probably know the feeling: you read something, probably more than once. And you find yourself asking, “Could you explain it again, but in English this time?” You don’t want this to happen to your readers, do you? The solution is to write in plain English.

Why Write in Plain English?

If your readers don’t understand the language you use, how will they understand the message you’re trying to convey? Communicating effectively is so important that governments around the world are adopting what they call “plain language” in their official communications. It’s not a case of “dumbing down,” but rather of making sure their messages are clear enough to reach the people who need to hear them.

So how do you write in plain English? Here are eight tips to help you.

1. Remember Your Audience

In planning your book, you’ve hopefully already thought about who you want to read it. Maybe your target audience is made up of stay-at-home parents, or students, or young people working their way up the corporate ladder. Whoever it is, take into account the following:

  • Your audience’s likely level of education
  • Whether they speak English as a first language or as an additional language
  • Their prior knowledge of the subject you’re writing about.

2. Write to One Person

As authors we tend to think of our reading audience in terms of the many. “Now that you are all sitting down reading this book…” Think about what your reader is doing while reading. It’s just them, alone, and your book. One person. One to one.

Write as if you’re talking to them. Use “I” or “we” when referring to yourself, for instance. Use “you” when addressing your readers. Also, readers are more likely to respond positively to a conversational style. 

3. Keep Your Sentences Short

We are more likely to retain information when we read shorter sentences. If your sentences tend to be long, try to break them up. Try to keep your sentences to no more than 20 words. To avoid monotony, vary the length of your sentences. Add short ones. And stick to one main idea in a sentence. 

4. Use the Active Voice

When we speak, we tend to use the active voice. The active voice is easier to understand and makes for a more conversational style. Active voice is a key tool when you write in plain English.

In writing, especially for new authors, we seem to slip more easily into passive. The passive voice, in contrast, can be confusing, especially for readers who don’t speak English as their first language.

Of course the passive voice can’t always be avoided, and there will be times you purposefully choose passive voice. We describe those circumstances in this blog post. However, remember that using the passive voice too often will make your writing seem staid and a little bureaucratic. Who wants that, unless you're a bureaucrat? 🙂

5. Use Simple Words

There’s nothing wrong with using long words. But there are often simpler ways of saying what you want to say. For instance, how many people do you know who say “consequently” rather than “so” when they speak? Or “in addition” rather than “and”?

The simpler the words you choose, the easier it will be for readers to understand your writing. Simple words also give your writing a warmer, friendlier tone. If you wish to write in plain English, the simple word must become your friend.

6. Use Nominalizations With Care

A nominalization is a noun that we form from a verb. For instance, “discussion” is a nominalization of the verb “discuss”. Too many nominalizations can make your writing sound dull like a grey suit. Look at the difference between these two sentences, for instance:

The usage of nominalizations can cause a complication of the text.

Using nominalizations can complicate the text.

If you use the verb instead of its nominalization, it not only simplifies the text but also gives it a bit of life.

7. Avoid Jargon

If you’ve ever tried to decipher a contract written in legalese, you’ll know why using jargon in your writing is a bad idea. Jargon usually refers to terms that are specific to a certain profession, industry, or academic discipline. People who don’t work in these fields generally don’t understand these terms. Slang is a form of jargon too.

How can you avoid jargon?

  • If there is a different, more generally-known synonym for the term, use it. For example, doctors understand “hypertension” but people who don’t work in the medical field may be more likely to understand “high blood pressure.”
  • Write out abbreviations and acronyms, at least the first time you use them. For example: The International Labour Organization, or ILO, is an agency of the United Nations that focuses on improving labour conditions around the world.
  • If you can’t avoid using jargon, explain the term. For example: The judge agreed to hear the case in camera. In other words, the public and the press wouldn’t be allowed in the courtroom.

8. Don't Believe in Grammar Myths

Of course you want to use good grammar in your writing. Some grammar rules, however, aren’t really rules at all. They’re more like guidelines. And frankly, sometimes they can make your writing tough to read. The three most common grammar myths are:

  • You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. But sticking to that rule will force you to use more complicated words. Not everyone will understand those words. So, you won’t be writing in plain English.
  • You can’t end a sentence with a preposition. If you stick to this rule, however, you might end up with no one to speak to.
  • You can’t split infinitives. However, you want your readers to truly understand what you’re trying to say, don’t you?

It’s common, especially among new authors, to use big words that show off their vocabulary. However, your writing will be much more effective if you simplify it and write in plain English.

What other tips would you add to help write in plain English?

About the Author Boni Wagner-Stafford

Boni is co-founder of Ingenium Books and an author, editor, and ghostwriter. She also manages communications and media for the Alliance of Independent Authors. As an award-winning former Canadian television reporter, news anchor, producer, and talk show host, working under the names Boni Fox and Boni Fox Gray, Boni covered politics, government, the economy, health, First Nations, and crime. She won several Canadian Association of Broadcaster (CAB) awards and a Jack Webster Award for best documentary. Boni also held senior management roles in government, leading teams responsible for editorial, issues management, media relations, strategic communications planning. Boni is co-author of Rock Your Business: 26 Essential Lessons to Start, Run, and Grow Your New Business From the Ground Up.

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