How to write in plain English
Writing in plain English helps readers understand your message the first time they read it and makes it clear what action they need to take.
Before you start, make sure you know:
- who your main audience is
- your key message for them
- why the message is relevant to them: what need of theirs does it meet?
- what you want them to do.
Plain English in a nutshell
- Start with what matters most to your audience
- Use "you" and "we"
- Avoid the passive voice
- Keep sentences short
- Use lists
- Use the simplest words that work
- Avoid nominalisations ("zombie nouns")
These are all explained in more detail below.
1. Start with what matters most to your audience
Put your key message first in the:
- first words in email subject lines, headers, and sentences
- first paragraph of documents and web pages
- first sentence in a paragraph
You can mention background, context and extra detail further down if needed. Those who need it will still read it if you follow the rest of the advice below.
Example: The library will be closed on Saturday 9 April from 06:00-12:00 for electrical maintenance work. (Not: Due to electrical maintenance, the library will be closed...)
Why: so people know at once if your message is relevant to them.
2. Use "you" and "we"
Address your reader directly, instead of using the third person. Make the text work for your core audience; other readers will know from context if "you" really means them.
Say "we" when referring to your organisation or department.
If necessary (for example in policies), you can define at the start who is meant by "we" and "you".
Example: We expect you to abide by our regulations. (Not: The University expects staff and students to abide by its regulations.)
Why: it's more engaging for the audience and makes the organisation look more approachable. It also helps people understand what's relevant to them and whether they need to take action.
3. Avoid the passive voice
Use active verbs. Make the protagonist of your sentence the person or thing that's doing something, not the thing that is being done.
- Sarah used the laptop (not: the laptop was used by Sarah)
- Send your application to... (Not: The application needs to be sent to...)
Why: the active voice makes it easy to see who is doing what. It's clear who needs to take action and what they need to do.
Exception: you might want to use the passive voice if you want to be less direct (to avoid apportioning blame for example). Your fine hasn't been paid, is softer than: You haven't paid your fine.
4. Keep sentences short
Try to make a single point per sentence: 15 to 20 words average sentence length are best. See if you can break a sentence into two. It's ok to start a new sentence with "And" or "But".
But vary the length of your sentences so your text doesn't become monotonous.
Why: it's easier to digest information in small chunks.
5. Use lists
Use bullets to make multiple points easy to scan. Use numbered lists to break down sequential steps.
- Use bullets to make multiple points easy to scan.
- Use numbered lists to break down sequential steps.
Why: your readers can scan information more easily.
6. Use the simplest words that work
Substitute a simpler word to see if it would sound ok in your text - usually it will.
If a complex word is the correct term and there's no simpler way to say it, use it. If it's a technical term that might be new to your audience, define it the first time you use it.
Don't use jargon and acronyms unless you're sure the audience will know them: new people won't know many organisation-centric terms.
- Need, not require, requirement
- Tell, not inform
- Use, not utilise
- Help, not assist or assistance
- Extra or more, not additional
More examples: A-Z of alternative words from the Plain English Campaign.
Why: we can all understand the words in the examples above. But the shorter version has the same meaning and sets a more active, friendly tone. This makes your text shorter and easier to read.
7. Avoid nominalisations ("zombie nouns")
Nominalisations are nouns made out of other words, often verbs. It's often better to use the base word in your sentence than the nominalisation.
This 5-minute video explains all: Beware of nominalizations (AKA Zombie Nouns) (YouTube)
- Provide, not provision
- Fail, not failure
- Available, not availability
- Engage, not engagement
- Investigate, not investigation
Why: nominalisations make sentences hard to process and can hide who is doing what.
Editing is key
Edit your text
Your first draft will probably not be as clear and concise as it could be, although writing in plain English will get easier with practice.
Once you have a draft:
- Remind yourself of the audience's needs. Does it tell me if it's relevant for me straight away? Is it easy to scan and pick up on key themes?
- Paste your draft text into the Hemingway editor. It helps you spot passive voice, overly-long sentences, complex words that could be changed into simpler ones, etc. Hone your draft in there.
- Can you shorten it? George Orwell said, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Look for padding you can cut, like:
- please be aware that…
- in order to…
- therefore it is recommended that…
- in the process of being…
- work collaboratively with…
Try pair writing for important work
Work with a colleague to craft important communications and documents, especially if you'll share them with many people. This works very well, especially if the other person is less familiar with the content.
One of you is the main writer, the other asks questions like:
- who's your target audience?
- is this the best angle?
- are the key points at the top?
- what do you mean by this?
- is there a simpler way to say this?
Why plain English?
Everyone scan reads: we all have little time and short attention spans. Plain English helps people understand if and why your communication matters to them.
It gets your message across: it makes it clear to people what action they need to take, leading to better outcomes for you and your audience.
It's more accessible: it's especially helpful for the 10% of the population with a visual impairment or reading disability such as dyslexia.
It saves your audience time: it may take you longer to write in plain English, but this pays dividends as it saves everyone else time and makes your communication more effective.
It's appropriate for leaders and academics: the more educated the person and the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English, because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible. See Writing well for specialists on the Gov.uk website