The Battle for Plain English
Stop filling your copy with nonsensical jargon
What is plain English?
Writing in plain English is essentially a method of presenting the information you are trying to convey in the simplest, most straight-forward manner.
Or, to put it in plain English…
Writing in plain English means presenting information in the simplest way.
Why does plain English matter?
Okay, I’ll admit it. I love a statistic (or two). So, here are a couple to hammer home the importance of Plain English.
The average reading age for adults in the UK is 9 years old.1
8.8 million adults (17% of the population) in the UK are functionally illiterate and can understand only the most straightforward, short texts on familiar topics.2
I find those stats shocking. By actively ignoring those who might struggle to understand your complex, jargon-filled, navel-gazing copy, you’re isolating a large group of people (and potential customers). Writing in a simple way, that is easily understood by all should be the basic criteria for any piece of corporate communication.
But my audience are subject-matter experts. They understand (and need) the jargon!
Really? Really? Are you sure? I’m assuming you’ve asked them, right…?
This is an argument I’ve heard (and had) several times and I am always, genuinely dismayed by this opinion. Writing in plain English doesn’t mean dumbing down or patronising people. It means looking again at the way you write and asking, “Is there a simpler way to say this?”.
So ask yourself again, “Is there a simpler way to say this?”.
Okay, it’s important. What can I do about it?
The first step is admitting you have a problem. So, congratulations and welcome to the first day of the rest of your life!
There are many tools out there you can use to sanity-check and check the readability of your copy.
Microsoft Word can show Readability Statistics (using Flesch–Kincaid readability tests) but doesn’t offer practical advice on how to improve. There are some web apps that go a little further in advising how to improve your copy – I often use Hemmingway App to check my work.
Remember, these tools are a guide and still need to be used with common sense. If we look at the readability score for this article, I have 5 very hard to read sentences and 2 hard to read sentences. However, I’m happy still using these sentences as they are there to make a clear point (and I’ve tested my article).
Ultimately, understanding your users is key. Testing with real people is the best way to check your information works. Once you understand any barriers, you can start to address the problems with your copy.
Make a vow to start writing in clear, concise, easy-to understand language.
Top tips for writing in Plain English:
- Use short sentences and cut down on unnecessary jargon.
- Don’t dumb down.
- Write conversationally, as if you were talking to a person and describing the features and benefits of the product in question.
- Use active verbs where possible.
- Get a non-expert to read it – if they can’t understand it, your copy hasn’t done the job.
- If in doubt, use a tool to check.
I’ll leave you with the wise words of one of our research participants…
There is too much jargon, too much information and I think ‘just say it as it is’. You may understand it but I may have to Google a lot of the things and check what they actually mean. I think that it is terrible that I actually have to look up what things mean.
Lucy Beldon, Planning & Inclusivity Lead at CDS