Andy Hawthorne

Thoughts, stories and ideas

Plain English, Please

There’s a lot of words out there.  Many of them exist in layers in a way that disguises their meaning. Which raises the question: what’s wrong with plain English?

There’s nothing wrong with plain English. Using short sentences and small words is fine.

Many people would claim to support it — while writing drivel. Plain English is an elusive beast when you want to get the words down  and then move on. It takes time to compose plain prose.

Here are plain English facts you can use in your writing today.

It’s not ‘cat sat on the mat’ writing

Yeah, I love this one. 

There are people (often academics) that argue plain English is over-simplification. It’s not. You can write as much as you need. And you can say what you need to say. 

I find myself writing documentation for complex software.  The software is dealing with complex problems. That’s the reason the documentation has to be clear. 

There’s a lot to explain and much of it is technical. I don’t hide from that or dumb it down. Instead, I work hard to make it as clear as I can. 

Grammar matters

Another popular misconception about plain English is, the grammar rules are not important. Wrong again. Grammar is important. BUT we are not striving for perfect grammar  all the time.

Oh and we are not banishing long words, either. 

It’s not amateur writing

There are loads of professional people who write using plain English. Banks and insurance companies for example, produce explanatory documents written with plain English. 

There is the point that plain English is not as easy to achieve as it sounds.

What counts as plain English?

Use short sentences. Vary your sentence length but don’t exceed 18-20 words. Strike hard. But vary the pace.

Next, it’s all about the active verbs. The television was watched by Andy is not it. Andy watched the television, is. That’s a simple rule: (S)subject, (V) verb (O)object. SVO is easy to remember.

Talk to your reader by using ‘we’ and ‘you’ — avoid sounding like a robot writing for other robots. In conversation we use inclusive language. Let that feed through to your writing.

While you’re at it, find appropriate words — banging on about quarks and dark matter is great, if your audience are physicists.

Here’s another thing: don’t fear imperatives — read this blog to help you write with clarity. There, a simple, direct message. It doesn’t hurt, does it?

One more thing: Try to normalise. Normalisation works like this: we had a discussion about the matter. Whereas: we discussed the matter is more direct and clear. Normalisation is the use of abstract nouns. The word abstract indicates the problem…

Remember the above along with:

  • Practicing the techniques described
  • Taking time to write a plainly as you can
  • Use lists…

Take the time to write, right?

Plain writing takes effort. You can’t follow the advice to write how you speak. Imagine if you did? All those ah’s and um’s would make it hard to read.

No, you have to pare back. You have to replace the words that make your prose hard to understand. And you have to strip out the bloat.

Plain English is something to aim for in all your writing. Your readers will thank you for it.