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How to write in plain English

August 2013

What is plain English?

“We define plain English as something that the intended audience can read, understand and act upon the first time they read it.”

Before you start

Before you write, you should be clear on what the aim is. You also need to know your audience and keep in mind who you are writing for.

Avoid waffle

Waffle is when you write or speak in a way which uses too many words. This makes what you are trying to say unclear. You can avoid waffle by cutting out unnecessary words and phrases. Local Trust did a short course in plain English with Chris Mohr. Chris quoted Blaise Pascal, a philosopher, mathematician, physicist and inventor in the 17th Century who said:

“I’m sorry this is such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

He’s saying that it’s easy to ramble on, but that it takes effort to produce something short and to the point.

Get rid of the jargon

Jargon is described on Wikipedia as “language used by people who work in a particular area or who have a common interest”. However, this language can act as a barrier to other people.

A Local Trust example of the use of jargon:
(GPI) round 2 funding was made available in 2012 to support areas in the early stages of Big Local, getting people involved (GPI). Areas could request up to £30,000 through GPI round 2.

Rewritten in plain English and without jargon:

Getting People Involved (GPI) round two funding was made available in 2012. Areas could request up to £30,000 for the early stages of Big Local.

We recognise that the first example is hard to understand and confusing. The second example puts words in an order that we can make sense of, the first time we read it! One tip for getting rid of jargon is to think how you would put your message across to an intelligent 12-year old. Look back at your own writing and see where jargon has crept in. Think about how you can get rid of it and say what you mean.

Verbs can be active or passive

Verbs are 'doing' words, they are used to describe an action. Talk, eat, read, sing, go, be – these are all verbs. 

Active verbs tell us who (or what) is doing what to whom (or what):

The partnership wrote the plan.

Passive verbs reverse the roles. They tell you what is being done by someone (or something) to someone (or something):

The plan was written by the partnership.

In the first example, the partnership (the subject) is doing the action, they are doing the writing. So the verb is active. In the second example, the plan – the target of the action, has now become the subject. It is being written but it isn’t doing anything (the doing is happening to it), so the verb is passive.

Read it through

Print your writing out and read it through. Look out for spelling mistakes, things you might have forgotten, or where your writing is inconsistent or unclear. Use a ruler so that you can carefully read line by line and if you read it aloud this can also help you to check it makes sense.

And finally

Keep it simple.

For more information:

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