When writing, possibly the most important advice is to keep it simple. The urge to pack too much information into a single sentence can be irrestible. Yet, according to the Plain English Campaign, sentences should ideally be between 15 and 20 words for readability.
Admittedly, this is easier said than done. (If you just checked the wordcount of the sentences in my first paragraph, you’ll know they only just scrape in!)
So, what is plain English?
Contrary to popular belief, keeping it simple isn’t, as the Plain English Campaign helpfully explains, “the cat sat on the mat” or “Janet and John writing”. Almost anything – from leaflets and letters to legal documents – can be written in plain English without being patronising or oversimplified.
I’m not saying you should ban long words or use completely perfect grammar. Nor is it about letting grammar slip. And I should warn you that it’s not as easy as you might think. But get it right and you’ll find it’s faster to write, quicker to read and you’ll get your message across more easily and in a friendlier way. Essentially, when you write in plain English, you’re writing with the reader in mind, in the right tone of voice, and in a way that is clear and concise.
How not to do it
Take heart. Even the professionals get it wrong sometimes. Consider this article, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph:
“The sight of some of the capital’s most excusive business addresses languishing empty – when not long ago they were snapped up as corporate headquarters – brings home the impact of the recession as financial controllers cut costs by letting out spare space vacated by staff who have been made redundant or exiled to less costly locations.”
Far too many facts have been crammed into one extremely long sentence! Instead, to keep it simple, the author should cut extraneous information and break it up into several sentences to improve readability. For example:
“The sight of some of the capital’s most excusive business addresses languishing empty brings home the impact of the recession. Offices have been left empty as staff were made redundant or moved to cheaper accommodation. Financial controllers have cut costs by letting out the space their firms no longer need.”
It probably won’t surprise you to know that overloading is particularly pronounced in bureaucratic documents. I’ll leave you with this gem, which once won the Golden Rhubarb Trophy for the most confusing government document of the year. Given the stiff competition, this is quite an achievement:
“Where either government considers that any institution, established as part of the overall accommodation, is not properly functioning within the Agreement or that a breach of the Agreement has otherwise occurred, the Conference shall consider the matter on the basis of a shared commitment to arrive at a common position or, where that is not possible, to agree a procedure to resolve the difference between them.”
Next week, I’ll share more writing tips. In the meantime, if you’d like professional help making your communications clear and simple, please get in touch!