Part 1: What is plain English?
Part 2: Why you should use plain English in your business.
Plain English writing means uses writing techniques and layout design to make your message clear to the reader. It is user-friendly writing.
It's not as easy as it sounds to write in plain English. And there are no rules on how to write in plain English – just guidelines. The guidelines are there to help you, but different contexts or readers mean that the guidelines must be interpreted correctly for your purpose.
There are two stages to writing a document in plain English:
Stage 1: Planning the structure and flow of the document.
Stage 2: Writing the sentences using plain English techniques.
Stage 1: Structure and flow
A clear structure helps the reader find the most important information fast. This means that they can understand the purpose and meaning of your writing quickly, and take action faster.
Before you start writing, think about your reader, then plan the structure of your document.
Understand your reader and your purpose
Once you have a good picture of your reader and your purpose, you can use the following techniques for the layout of your content.
Techniques to make your information easy to find
Stage 2: Guidelines for writing in plain English
These techniques are guidelines for using plain language in writing. Consider whether each one is appropriate for your context. It’s OK to break a guideline when it’s not appropriate.
1. Use short sentences
Sentences should be no more than 15 to 20 words. The longer the sentence, the harder it is to follow.
Mix up the length of sentences to keep it interesting. And make every word count. Short sentences can be punchy, but longer sentences can help the flow.
Follow the basic principle of keeping one idea for each sentence, with sometimes a related point added (as I did here).
If you find yourself writing in very long sentences, break each into two or more sentences. The ‘and’ is usually a good place to break a sentence.
2. Use active voice
Passive voice is often used in official communications, as there is a perception that it sounds professional. But active voice is easier and quicker to understand.
Passive: Your application will be considered shortly.
Active: We will consider your application shortly.
Passive: The building had to be closed by the council.
Active: The council had to close the building.
When it’s OK to use passive voice:
Sometimes it is appropriate to use passive voice, but do so only sparingly.
Passive: The bill has not been paid.
Active: You have not paid the bill.
Passive: A mistake was made
Active: We made a mistake
Avoid phrases such as ‘it is recommended’ or ’it is noted’.
3. Use ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘I’
Using ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘I’ makes the writing personal by addressing the reader directly, and it keeps the sentences shorter. A reader is more likely to remember the instructions when spoken to directly, and it avoids clumsy sentences.
Impersonal: Applicants must send us …
Personal: You must send us …
Impersonal: The department always tells customers before …
Personal: We will always tell you …
It is OK to use ‘I’ and ‘we’ in the same document.
4. Choose words appropriate for the reader
Use words that your reader will understand. And know your target audience. This doesn’t mean using only simple words, but it means using words you reader will know, or explaining more difficult or new words if they can’t be avoided.
Avoid jargon unless your target audience will know it. Jargon words are words that only a specific group of people knows. For example, you wouldn’t use an uncommon scientific term for a general audience, but if you are writing for scientists in a particular field that use that jargon, you can use the scientific term.
5. Give instructions directly
It might feel polite to use long sentences for instructions. However, this may confuse the message. It’s OK to use commands. You can use ‘please’ to soften the command, but remember that ‘please’ gives the reader the option to refuse, so don’t use it if something must be done.
Indirect: Passengers are advised not to leave their luggage unattended.
Direct: Please do not leave your bags unattended.
Don’t use ‘should’.
Indirect: Customers should wait in line to be served.
Direct: Please wait in line to be served.
6. Be positive
Emphasise the positive. Being positive makes it easier to understand and to follow the instruction.
Negative: If you don’t complete the form, we can’t process your payment.
Positive: Please complete the form so we can process your payment.
7. Avoid nominalisations
Nominalisations are when a verb or adjective is used as a noun. These add unnecessary words that can slow understanding.
Words ending with -ion, -tion, -ing, -ment, -end, -ance/-ence and -ancy/-ency are often nominalisations.
Here are some examples of nominalisations:
The advancement of = advance
The completion of = complete
The facilitation of = facilitate
The provision of = provide
Holds a meeting = meets
Comes to a conclusion = concludes
Takes action = acts
Had a discussion = discussed
With nominalisations: Suitable land in sufficient quantities is acquired in appropriate areas and subjected to site development in advancement of the commencement of actual house construction.
Plain English: Enough suitable land is acquired whenever it is needed, and is developed before houses are built on it.
8. Use lists
Lists can be a good way of breaking up a long sentence. Using bullet points makes the information easy to read and understand.
BEFORE: Apply if you are aged (65 years old or older), blind, or disabled and have low income and few resources. Apply if you are terminally ill and want to receive hospice services. Apply if you are aged, blind, or disabled; live in a nursing home; and have low income and limited resources. Apply if you are aged, blind, or disabled and need nursing home care, but can stay at home with special community care services. Apply if you are eligible for care and have low income and limited resources.
You may apply if you are:
9. Avoid clichés
Avoid using clichés. A cliché doesn’t usually mean what the words say so the meaning will not be understood by readers who don’t know it. Overuse of clichés makes your writing sound unoriginal.
An elephant in the room
A level playing field
10. Choose the plainer option
Filler words may feel polite to use but they are just in the way of making your message quick and easy to understand.
Wordy sentence: The department will be taking steps to improve its level of service over and above what it is now.
Plain English: The department will improve its level of service.
The second option is much clearer and quicker, but no less polite.
Wordy sentence: You are advised for your information that you should call into this office personally to complete the form.
Plain English: You should call into this office to complete the form.
Or: Please call into this office to complete the form.
If you are writing a document or book in plain English and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of non-fiction books, documents and cook books. I can discuss with you where your writing is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your writing shine, please contact me.
I would love to hear from you.
Marja Stack is a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. She is the owner of Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, which caters to all writers of non-fiction books, business publications and cookbooks. For more information or enquiries for how she can help you make your book shine, please see her website:
- What is plain English?
- Why you should use plain English
- How to write in plain English
New Zealand English Series
- NZE: How to use a semicolon
- NZE: The 'singular they'
- NZE: How to use italics
- NZE: How to write numbers
- NZE: How to write abbreviations
- NZE: How to punctuate dialogue
- NZE: hyphens, en dashes and em dashes
- NZE: How to write times and dates
- NZE: Possessives
- NZE: Is our spelling different?
- NZE: Burned vs Burnt
- NZE: Using Māori words in English text
- NZE: -ise vs -ize endings
- NZE: Single or double quote marks
- NZE: Punctuation inside or outside quotation marks?
The Editing Process
- How to write a non-fiction book that sells
- How to write a book to promote your business
- Copyright and Permissions
- How much does editing cost?
- How to self-publish your book in New Zealand
- When is my book ready for publishing?
- Types of editing
- 5 things to tell your editor
- The revision and editing process
- What are beta readers?
- What to expect when you get your manuscript back
- How to order the pages of a book
- Fact checking fiction writing
- Formatting your manuscript for submission
- How long does it take to edit a book?
- Why I belong to editing associations
- How to write recipes for cookbooks and blogs
- The basics of writing a cookbook
- How to use Tracked Changes in Word
- How to use basic Word Styles
- How to fix common formatting errors in Word