I was rewriting some web page content for a client today. Being honest, it offended my plain English aims. Here’s how plain English helps any copy…

The original copy I was working from was well intended but way off the mark. And content produced for websites often is like the Word document it came from.

But What do I mean?

Well, there will be sentences that go on for quite a long time. And there will be paragraphs that go on for a long time too. 

The thing here is: it’s not just writing for the web that plain English rules should apply to.

For example, let’s look at some insurance companies. They’ve managed to write an entire policy document using plain English. So, there’s no excuse for anyone else.

If the copy is for a website, there are some special guidelines that help. But the underlying principles of plain English still apply.

Plain English in a nutshell

Writing using plain English is not hard. Here’s a list:

  • Aim for short sentences
  • Use active verbs
  • Include plenty of ‘we’ and ‘you’
  • Use words that suit your reader
  • Giving instructions is fine
  • Avoid normalisations
  • Use lists.

Let’s take a quick run through these. 

Short sentences

Short sentences make your prose easier to read. Not every sentence has to be short. The best plan is to mix and match the length of your sentences. It helps the flow.

Active verbs

Writing with active verbs makes your writing feel more energetic. 

Sentences consist of a subject, a verb and an object. In that order. So that’s equates to: 

  • The person or thing doing the action
  • A verb
  • The object.

So: ‘Andy wrote this article’ works. The is article was written by Andy is passive. 

We and you

We are writing stuff we want people to read. So, include them in the piece. The easy way to do that is to use words like: ‘we’ and ‘you’. 

It’s more inclusive and less stuffy. And it doesn’t sound any less professional. 

Write for your people

Jargon is ok if your intended audience for the piece understand it. Likewise with other words you might choose to use too. 

Plain English is not about dumbing down writing. It’s about making it easy to understand.  So, use language that your reader will understand. 

Read this

There’s no need to be nervous about asking readers to do something. Many people edge around the imperative by using the would ‘should’.  And ‘please’ is often unnecessary too.

“The pie should be removed from the packaging”

Nope. How about:

“Remove the pie from the packaging”

Normal normalisation

Normalisations are words used for things that aren’t physical objects. Stuff like a process, or a concept. 

So, words like ‘completion’ which comes from the verb ‘complete’.  They make your copy sound passive. And potentially a bit dull.

“We had a discussion about the issue”

Did you? That’s nice. How about:

“We discussed the issue”

You can have a completion date or… a completed by date.

Having a discussion is fine, but why not discuss it?

Learn to love lists

Finally, you’ll see that I’ve used lists throughout this post. They work well for breaking up text. 

They are great on the web too because they make it easy to skim the copy. 

So, plain English doesn’t have to be hard. It’s not supposed to be, in fact. But writing by following these guidelines does need some effort. It will be worth it, though.

Can I write some plain, yet persuasive words for you? Why not drop me a line?