How to Write in Plain English

Excerpt from Chapters 2 and 3 of “Plain Language, Please: How to Write for Results” by Janet Arrowood (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

For many people, their approach to writing consists of the following 11 steps:

  1. Get the writing task
  2. Panic and moan
  3. Think about it for too long, so you are likely to miss your deadline
  4. Panic and moan
  5. Start writing, but don’t have a plan. So you fill the document with jargon, acronyms, clichés, adjectives and adverbs, illogical sentences, big words, repetition, and massively lengthy and convoluted sentences and paragraphs
  6. Develop a case of writer’s block
  7. Panic and moan
  8. Rush to get the darn thing done
  9. Kick it up to the boss or professor or editor and let them fix (rewrite) it
  10. Panic and moan
  11. Repeat steps 1 through 10

But there is a better way… and here’s the “secret.”

The “secret” is simple: Understand and apply a logical process to everything you write. Make using this process a habit, and writing becomes a straightforward task. The end result meets the needs and goals of your audience. Your documents become clear, concise, and usable. You are writing in plain English, using plain language. Your audience thinks you are wonderful because they can understand what you wrote and use the information you gave them.

So how do you reach this pinnacle of simplicity and clarity? Apply these nine commonsense steps to ensure you are writing in plain English:

  1. Identify and write to the “right” audience
  2. Keep it simple and short: Manage your words, sentences, paragraphs, and bullets
  3. Plan and organize your document before you start writing
  4. Apply the “Cs” and “Rs” of effective writing
  5. Use correct grammar and punctuation
  6. Use reader-friendly voice, tone, and person
  7. Apply effective self-editing and proofreading techniques
  8. Write for the likely viewing medium
  9. Employ the principles of netiquette

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Maybe at first, but as with most things, you will quickly see the benefits. Repetition will help you internalize the process so it becomes instinctive, enabling you to create a quality finished product in less time than you currently are spending.

Writing effectively and efficiently is much like painting a room. You could try to be really careful and hope you don’t spill any paint and maybe the room will look great when you’re done…or maybe not. Or you could take the time to apply the painting process: Take down blinds and rods; turn off breakers, remove light switch plates, and tape around the outlet edges; tape the baseboards and other seams; cover the carpet and furniture; and so forth. Then the painting goes quickly and the room looks great…and with a bit of practice, the prep work takes less time and the end result comes increasingly quickly.

As with painting a room the “right” way, making writing a process and then applying that process takes time, but the end result is so worth the time spent.

So let’s get started and work through the process that makes writing in plain English a simple, straightforward process and ensures you will become a better, more confident writer.

Identify and Write to the “Right” Audience

Rule #1: It’s All About the Audience—the Reader

“A child of five could understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
Groucho Marx

When we write, we have a tendency to write for ourselves and our reviewer and/or supervisor. That presents a problem. After they make their comments, from their perspective, you now have a document that may be very “audience unfriendly.” If the intended reader doesn’t see himself or herself in your document, one or more things may happen. The reader:

  • May not read past the first paragraph or two
  • May not understand what you are trying to convey
  • May think he or she understands what you are trying to convey, but is mistaken
  • May toss the document (or shut down the file) and do nothing
  • May go to someone else for the answers or information or whatever

None of these actions is what you had in mind, but the reader doesn’t know that. All he or she knows is you sent something they cannot read, understand, follow, or comply with. Documents that are clear, concise, and audience focused and friendly get read. They get favorable responses. Documents that are murky and writer-focused too often are ignored or misunderstood.

Identify Your Audiences

Who are your audiences? Every document is probably a bit different, and so may be the intended audience(s). It is worthwhile to take a couple of minutes before you start the writing process and jot down your audiences. Audiences fall into several categories:

  • Intended—The “actionees”
  • Unintended—Maybe the admin assistant, or someone in an “actionee’s” office
  • Accidental—Ever sent an e-mail to John R. Smith when you meant John P. Smith?
  • Hostile—Often a result of the dreaded “forward” action in response to an e-mail
  • Management chain—Your managers, supervisors, reviewers who want the document written for them and then wonder why the desired responses are not forthcoming

Create a Purpose Statement

Once you have identified your intended and most likely unintended audiences, there is a second action you need to take. You need to create a simple, 50-word purpose statement that describes:

  • What you are going to write
  • Who it is for
  • What you want to happen as a result of the intended (and possibly unintended) audiences receiving your document

With these two pieces of information (audience and purpose statement) in hand, you will be better prepared to approach or e-mail the management/review chain before you start writing and get their support and agreement for the document’s focus.

Write to the Level, Needs, and Goals of Your Most Likely Audiences

The average high school graduate usually reads at approximately a fifth- to sixth-grade level. If the material is in their area of expertise they may read at a ninth- to tenth-grade level or a bit higher. The average college graduate usually reads at a ninth- to tenth-grade level, increasing to college level in their areas of expertise. Even a Ph.D. usually only reads at a post-graduate level in his or her areas of expertise. Give a Ph.D. in antenna design and radio frequency propagation an excerpt from the doctoral thesis of a human behavioral specialist and the designer will throw up his or her hands in disgust and walk away.

Excerpt from Chapters 2 and 3 of “Plain Language, Please: How to Write for Results” by Janet Arrowood (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

Janet Arrowood has developed and presented plain language training programs for global audiences, including numerous U.S. government agencies, United Nations organizations, major corporations, professional and trade associations, and nonprofit organizations. As a former engineer, military officer, defense contractor, and technical writer, she recognized the need for effective writing in all aspects of business, organizational, and government writing and has developed training materials and programs to fill the gaps. She has more than 35 years of directly related effective writing and training experience, backed by project management, course design, and course facilitation expertise. Arrowood is the founder and CEO of The Write Source, Inc., a global training, writing, and editing company, where she develops and provides effective writing training programs for a worldwide client base. She can be reached at Janet.Arrowood@TheWriteSourceInc.com.

 

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