Commercial Media

Experienced Communications Strategist and Legal Research Expert.

10 basic rules of plain English

Plain English is important in today’s communications. Here are 10 basic rules by which to live (and write). By using plain English, you can better engage your clients and stakeholders, improve long-term relationships as well as better communicate your brand and value proposition.

Plain English is essential to contemporary writing.

10 basic rules

  1. Know your audience
  2. Use a warm, positive and engaging tone
  3. Use active rather than passive voice
  4. Put key messages and information up front
  5. Be direct – economise your words
  6. Keep sentences and paragraphs short
  7. Use headings and sub-headings
  8. Use minimal capitalisation
  9. Avoid jargon – or define it
  10. Be consistent

Rule 1: Know your audience Ask yourself the following:

  • Who is my primary reader?
  • Who is my secondary reader?
  • What would I want/need to know if I were the reader?

And always write for your reader, not for your stakeholder. Rule 2: Use a positive tone By using a warm, positive and engaging tone, you will be able to improve the way you connect with your reader. A positive and engaging tone can be achieved in a number of ways. Here are just some:

  • Use reader-focused language
  • Use “We” and “You” rather than “The company”
  • Flip negative phrases into positive ones (eg: “You did not pay your last bill” > “We have not yet received your payment in respect of our bill dated X.”)
  • Always address the reader by using a salutation such as “Dear” or “Hi” (as appropriate).

Rule 3: Use active voice In most situations, it is preferable to use active voice, as it brings language to life and provides further clarity for the reader. Active voice is where the subject is mentioned in a sentence before the object. Eg: “The manager reviewed the brief.” Passive voice is where the object is mentioned before the subject. Eg: “The brief was reviewed by the manager.” There is an exception to the above rule, where a softer and more indirect approach is preferred. It is acceptable to use a passive voice in the following situations:

  • When delivering bad or unfavourable news
  • When writing about a sensitive issue or topic.

Rule 4: Put key messages up front  It’s a safe assumption that most people are time-poor. Therefore, it’s essential to highlight your key message or call-to-action up front. This is an especially valuable rule for online writing, where readers ‘scan’ online text for meaning, rather than read it. There’s a secondary, more concrete reason to adhere to this rule. Research shows that you actually lose 50 per cent of your audience on the second fold of a document. So forget lengthy introductions or ‘cushioning’: state your message clearly up front, and follow it with supporting/contextual information and detail. Rule 5: Be direct – economise your words This follows on from Rule 4 above, which states that lengthy documents and online ‘scrolling’ can generally cost you half your readership. To keep your message short, scannable and succinct, try to use the least amount of words possible. Always think of a faster way to say something. It’s not cutting corners – it’s about being a reader-focused contemporary writer. For example, rather than say: “If you wish to further discuss or want further detail or information in relation to the topic above, please telephone the writer.” (22 words) You could instead say: “For more information, please phone us.” (6 words) Rule 6: Keep sentences and paragraphs short Here’s a rule of thumb: Sentences: Maximum 20 words long. If a sentence is too long, split it into two sentences. Paragraphs: One idea only. For a new idea or thought, start a new paragraph. Rule 7: Use headings and sub-headings Headings and sub-headings provide excellent signposts for the reader. Used effectively, headings and sub-headings give a document context, structure and help build reader engagement. A good heading:

  • Is informative
  • Uses key words
  • Is short and catchy.

Rule 8: Use minimal capitalisation Capital letters are distracting for readers, causing them to lose the rhythm and flow of the message. In most cases, it is not necessary to use capital letters for job titles, headings and sub-headings. Rule 9: Avoid jargon – or define it Even if you are sure that your primary audience will understand your message, your secondary audience may not. Therefore, it is preferable to avoid using jargon. However, if you must use jargon, define it at first reference using parentheses (round brackets). Eg: “The First Home Owner Grant (FHOG) is a state-based grant for first home buyers.” Rule 10: Be consistent This is without doubt the most important rule of all. Whatever style of language, format, tense or tone you use, be consistent. Of course there are many more rules, but as a communications consultant the most common errors I observe are the ones above. Feel free to adapt the rules outlines above to your own writing. Want to know more about the plain English movement in Australia? Useful links below:

Let us not shrink from using the short, expressive phrase, even if it is conversational.

– Winston Churchill


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This entry was posted on 22/04/2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , .
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