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How to get results by writing in plain English

How to get results by writing in plain English

By Jane Whitehead, copywriter, plain English editor and founder of Wordpoint.

Whether you’re writing promotional materials, customer letters or internal emails, you want people to read what you’ve written.  You also want them to understand it and, in many cases, act on it. 

The best way to make sure you get the right response is to make sure you say everything clearly. If you write in plain English, you’ll be doing your readers a favour.  You’ll make it easy for them to read, take the appropriate action and get on with what they need to do next. 

If you have an important message to convey, why make your readers struggle through a dense jungle of words? They’re busy people. If they come across impenetrable jargon, long-winded phrases, confusing sentences and rambling paragraphs, they’ll probably just give up anyway.  And you won’t get the response you want.

Writing in plain English means writing in a clear, straightforward way that people will understand.  And no, it doesn’t mean you have to oversimplify everything and make it really boring or patronising.  But it does mean thinking about your readers and making sure that what you say is relevant to their needs.  Sometimes you may need to use technical language or industry jargon and that’s fine, provided your readers understand it. 

Plain English will help you communicate more effectively with clients, staff and prospects. If everyone understands you the first time, they won’t keep coming back to you with questions. People will make fewer mistakes.  You’ll be more efficient.  You’ll save time and money. You’ll gain trust and respect by saying things in a clear, straightforward way. Your clients and prospects will be more receptive to your offer.  Your staff will be able to provide a better service and your organisation will enjoy a real advantage over its competitors.

Ten top tips for writing in plain English

1. Use plain, everyday English words

Instead of: I acknowledge receipt of your recent correspondence.

Try: Thank you for writing to us.

2. Keep sentences short

Instead of: Our consultants are all qualified professionals whose aim is to give you the best service possible and their job is to help you get the most out of your abilities and enjoy life to the full. 

Try: Our consultants are all qualified professionals whose aim is to give you the best service possible.  Their job is to help you get the most out of your abilities and  enjoy life to the full. 

3. Cut out unnecessary words

Instead of: To avoid a recurrence of having to go through this process again, please ensure  that you take note of the memorable information that you submit on your order  form. 

Try: To avoid having to go through this process again, please take note of the  memorable information you submit on your order form. 

4. Make it personal

Instead of: The company works closely with its customers to help them maximise their  business potential.

Try: We work closely with you to help you maximise your business potential.
5. Use active verbs rather than passive verbs

Instead of: A new service has been introduced which it is hoped will make your life easier.

Try: We’ve introduced a new service which we hope will make your life easier.

6. Use strong verbs: avoid nominalisations (‘we analysed’, not ‘we made an analysis’)

Instead of: There is no requirement to inform us of changes to your plans.

Try: You don’t need to tell us if you change your plans.

7.  Use bullet points if it makes things clearer

Instead of: Please complete the new counsellor application form, then return it for my attention. Also, please sign one copy of the service level agreement and return it  with the form, keeping the duplicate copy for your information and also return the  workshop booking form.

Try: If you’d like to become a counsellor, you’ll need to:
· fill in the application form 
· sign one copy of the service level agreement (and keep the duplicate copy for your information)
· fill in the workshop booking form.
Please return all three items to me.

8.  Say things in a positive way
Instead of: We won’t be able to process your application until we have received a signed  copy of your passport.

Try: Please send us a signed copy of your passport so we can open your account.

9.  Remember the reader: keep it relevant
Instead of: I am in receipt of a letter received from you yesterday, which has been forwarded to me in my capacity as Assistant Manager of the Customer Liaison Department.

Try: Thank you for your letter which we received yesterday.

10.  Get the basics right: punctuation, grammar, and spelling. 
And don’t forget to proofread carefully.

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