Plain English

This style guide looks at the main ways to make writing clearer:

1. Keep your sentences short; vary the length
2. Prefer active verbs
3. Use ‘you’ and ‘we’
4. Choose words appropriate for the reader
5. Use the command form (where appropriate)
6.
Avoid nominalizations
7. Use positive language
8. Use lists where appropriate

Keep your sentences short

 

This does not mean making every sentence the same length. Be punchy. Vary your writing by mixing short sentences (like the last one) with longer ones (like this one), following the basic principle of sticking to one main idea in a sentence, plus perhaps one other related point. You should soon be able to keep to the average sentence length – 6 to 8 words, used by award-winning journalists and bestselling-authors – quite easily.

 

Prefer active verbs

Here are some more examples of how to turn a passive verb into an active verb.

 

This matter will be considered shortly. (Passive)

We will consider this matter shortly. (Active)


The riot was stopped. (Passive)

The police stopped the riot. (Active)


The mine had to be closed by local mining officials. (Passive)

The authority had to close the mine. (Active)

 

Good uses of passives

There are times of course when you should use a passive.

 

1. To make something less hostile – ‘this bill has not been paid’ (passive) is softer than ‘you have not paid this bill’ (active).

2. To avoid taking the blame – ‘a mistake was made’ (passive) rather than ‘we made a mistake’ (active).

Use ‘you’ and ‘we’

 

Try to call the reader ‘you’, even if the reader is only one of many people you are talking about generally. If this feels wrong at first, remember that you wouldn’t use words like ‘the applicant’ and ‘the supplier’ if you were speaking to somebody sitting across a desk from you.

Examples

Applicants must send us…

You must send us…

We always tell customers before we…
We will tell you before we…

Advice is available from…
You can get advice from…

 

Similarly, always call your organisation ‘we’. And there is nothing wrong with using ‘we’ and ‘I’ in the same letter

Avoid nominalizations

 

Here are some examples.

We had a discussion about the matter.
We discussed the matter.


There will be a stoppage of trains by drivers.
Drivers will stop the trains.


We are specialized in the provision of customer-oriented solutions
We specialize in providing customer-oriented solutions.

 

 

The extremely short guide to making your writing more professional:

(1) Write out all contractions: it’s = it is; can’t = cannot.

(2) Use simple forms, not continuous: *I am looking forward to meeting you = I look forward to meeting you.

(3) Avoid the word ‘get’: Please get in touch with me. = Please contact me.