How using plain English can improve your writing

Everyone wants an impressive vocabulary. There’s nothing like playing Scrabble and feeling intellectually superior for knowing ‘loquacious’ or ‘magniloquence’. But good writing is about more than frilly language and triple word scores. It’s clear, it’s snappy and it communicates a message with as few words as possible.
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JargonPlain English

Everyone wants an impressive vocabulary. There’s nothing like playing Scrabble and feeling intellectually superior for knowing ‘loquacious’ or ‘magniloquence’. But good writing is about more than frilly language and triple word scores. It’s clear, it’s snappy and it communicates a message with as few words as possible.

So, sorry to all the budding wordsmiths out there, but when it comes to business writing at least, effective writing favours plain English over fancy vocab. Sounds easy, right? If only. Using plain English can mean breaking habits formed over a lifetime.

Word choice

Word choice is crucial in shaping how effectively you communicate. To write in plain English, opt for simpler words, free of formalities and padding.

Here’s a list of plain English alternatives to commonly used words, to give you an idea.

  • about (concerning, in relation to)
  • before (prior to)
  • decide (determine)
  • find out (ascertain)
  • give (allocate)
  • if (contingent upon, provided that)
  • need (necessitate)
  • pay / salary (remuneration)
  • send (disseminate)
  • to (with a view to)
  • try to (endeavour to)
  • under (in accordance with)
  • will (shall)

Jargon, buzzwords and corporate speak

Beware of being a bore. Only use jargon if absolutely necessary. Of course, it might be that industry terminology is relevant for your piece, but always consider your audience and don’t assume they have extensive knowledge of the subject. On the whole, avoid buzzwords and cringeworthy corporate speak. They’ll only alienate the reader and obscure your message.

Here are some common offenders:

  • use not leverage, operationalise
  • mutual benefits not synergies
  • lessons, insights not learnings
  • issues or concerns not pain points
  • problems, issues not blockers.

Range

We often write words without considering their meaning. Take the phrases ‘a range of’ or ‘ranging from’, for example. Consider whether the objects in question are at opposite ends of a continuum? If not, mentioning a range is unnecessary.

Clichés

Unless hidden under eight layers of irony, avoid clichés. They’re repetitive and uninspiring. Stale phrases like ‘circle back’, ‘touch base’ and ‘at the end of the day’ are a sign of lazy writing. Try to think outside the box. (Only permitted in jest.)

Old-fashioned words 

Old English is out, plain English is in. Here are some old-fashioned words to forsake.

  • Amongst (among)
  • Whilst (while)
  • In order to (to)
  • Linkage (link)
  • Utilising (using)

Brevity

‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’ But did you know it’s also the soul of business writing? Sure, it wasn’t mentioned in Hamlet, but Shakespeare was probably just conscious of the word count.

Sentence length

Unless you’re Shakespeare, it’s generally better to keep yours short. Break long ones up if they are complex.

Active vs passive voice

Active writing does wonders for clarity and readability. It also makes your sentences shorter. In contrast, passive can create long-winded, wordy sentences that may confuse your reader.

To construct an active sentence, think about your who (subject), your action (verb) and your what (object). Active sentences put the subject first.

Consider these examples. 

     The Prime Minister spoke at the press conference. (active)

     The press conference was spoken at by the Prime Minister. (passive)

     We discussed the annual report. (active)

     The annual report was discussed by us. (passive)

‘That’ and ‘both’

‘That’ and ‘both’ are often superfluous. Take them out unless a sentence doesn’t make sense without them.

     We have a number of plans that you can choose from.

     We have a number of plans you can choose from.

     Editor Group also has offices in both New York and Singapore.

    Editor Group also has offices in New York and Singapore.

While we’re on the topic, be careful with the words ‘existing’ and ‘currently’. If it exists, it exists. We look foolish if we remind the reader.

Transitional words

Transitional words like ‘moreover’ and ‘nevertheless’ aren’t always necessary and can often be replaced by the humble ‘but’. They were great for reaching the word count at university but that’s about it.

Literally

Words such as ‘literally’, ‘essentially’ and ‘basically’ rarely add or change the meaning. Consider this sentence.

The doctor essentially checks the patient’s heartbeat and blood pressure.

‘Essentially’ is redundant. The subject either does or doesn’t do the action.

Tautology

Tautology is when we repeat the same idea, just using different words. It’s often hidden in common phrases or everyday language but is sometimes acceptable to improve clarity.

Some common examples include:

  • 10am in the morning
  • an added bonus
  • a new innovation
  • she descended down the stairs.

And finally – a word about tone

With any kind of writing comes a degree of subjectivity. Concise writing still needs to consider tone, rhythm and flow. If every sentence is short and sharp, it can sound abrupt. For this reason, balance longer sentences with shorter ones and read your writing out loud to check the pace and rhythm.

Depending on the formality of the piece, try to write with a conversational tone. Use ‘we’ and ‘you’ to create a more personal, welcoming pitch for your audience.

And remember, writing in plain English is about improving communication. The skill is to apply it in a way that makes sense to your piece. If your topic is complex, you won’t always be able to completely avoid jargon. If you really don’t know who did something, you might need to use passive. Knowing when to apply plain English principles, and when not to, is the art of good writing.

By Olivia Baume

 

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How to use the principles of plain English to improve your writing

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