Clear writing has clear results. And I love helping writers say exactly what they mean so readers can understand. But I was sure I could write better myself. Then I started mentoring someone who specialized in plain English and I wanted to learn more.
If you’re interested in it, too, do the CIEP Plain English for Editors course. It costs about £200 (less for CIEP members) and takes about 30 hours depending on what you know already. It’s worth it for the reading list alone. I learned a lot in a very short time:
Did you know that technology can help make your English plainer? You can customize Word grammar checks, use macros, and make PerfectIt style sheets. I also tried some software. StyleWriter highlights words that “bog” a text down and “pep” a text up, making it harder or easier to read. Online, you can use the Hemingway Editor for free. But all these tools have their limits.
You can calculate how plain a document is by measuring it in different ways:
- The Flesch Reading Ease score should be about 65/100 for plain English.
- The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level should not be higher than 9 (a reading age of 15) for plain English. In the UK, the average reading age is 13.
- Both these measures count word length and sentence length. A plain English sentence should be shorter than 20 words.
But long words and sentences are only one problem. Sometimes, a short statement can be complex, e.g. “I think, therefore I am.” Sometimes, you need to use more difficult language, but you can explain what you mean.
You can use some excellent online guides to help you write in plain English:
- Free guides from the Plain English Campaign
- The US Centre for Plain Language
- The UK Government website
- UK Association for Accessible Formats
- The Financial Times dictionary of business jargon, Guffpedia
- National Institute for Healthcare and Excellence guide to talking about people
- UCL guide to organise, structure, and edit your academic writing
But you won’t absorb everything by visiting the websites. On the course, you do exercises and can talk to your tutor or other students. The best way to write in plain English is to try it and see what real readers think. They will tell you whether they understand or not.
It’s most important to plan before you start writing. Wh-questions are a clear, easy way to organize a text – who is doing what, where, when, and why?
The CIEP Plain English course taught me 10 things:
1. Plain English is flexible
You just need to ask: “what do I want to say?” and “who am I writing for?”
2. Plain English is interesting
You can vary it. Complicated, official language can be much more boring!
3. Plain English is for sharing complex ideas
What you say is not simple, but the way you say it is clear.
4. Plain English is for formal writing
A clear message sounds strong. Trying to sound clever might not work.
5. Plain English is for taking readers seriously
How often do people say “that’s too easy to read”?
6. Plain English is for university
Researchers can reach more people if they explain their ideas well.
7. Plain English is for law
People find it easier to keep and enforce clear laws.
8. Plain English is useful for reaching readers
You can use it give many people large amounts of information briefly.
9. Plain English is hard work
You need to check words and sentence length, plan, and test.
10. Plain English is faster and cheaper
It takes time, but it can save time – and money. If your text is clear, you don’t need to explain it.
I tried to write this in plain English, using all the tools and links I learned about. Can you see where I could have made it plainer?