Copywriting Fundamentals: How to write in Plain English

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The plain English movement has a golden history that stretches back hundreds of years. All the way back to when Latin was the official language of education in England.

Literary giants Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare championed writing in language that could be understood by ordinary people. Robert Cawdrey took up the cause in 1604 when he compiled the first English language dictionary. He wrote in the Foreword:

“in pleine English wordes, gathered for the helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskillfull persons.”

In the 19th Century, Charles Dickens took the legal profession to task in his novel, David Copperfield:

“We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannise over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important and sounds well.”

George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language was equally critical of politicians and their parties who used debased and inaccurate language in public speaking:

“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

So what is plain English?

Plain English is easy to understand. It’s simple and concise, while still conveying necessary information. It is not:

“Obtuse, dense and otherwise superfluous writing that is expertly capable of rendering even the most intelligent among us agape as a ray-finned fish that is now senseless and devoid of comprehension.”

Or as, co-founder of the Centre for Plain Legal Language at the University of Sydney, described it:

“Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure that their audience understands the message easily.”

The plain English movement is a global campaign. Its aim is to persuade anybody who publishes documents to cut out jargon, buzzwords, legalese and five syllable words. The campaign for clear information has spread beyond English-speaking countries and is now becoming the plain language movement.

Why should copywriters care about plain English?

What do you get when you cross the Godfather with a lawyer? An offer you can’t understand.

Writing in plain English is best practice and good manners.

People are busy. They read more words every day than at any time in the past. People looking for information want to find it quickly and easily – and they want to understand what they’re reading. Your audience isn’t going to waste time re-reading a paragraph because it wasn’t clearly written.

What happens when somebody opens your document or loads your web page and finds gobbledegook and technobabble? They stop reading. They walk away.

You’ve lost your moment. Your chance to connect with your audience just walked out the door.

How do you write plain English?

Short(er) sentences. Common words. Logical structure. Writing plain English is an art; the best thing you can do to improve your plain writing is to practise.

My favourite technique is to read my writing out loud. If it’s not easy to read aloud, then it’s probably not easy to read at all. Reading aloud is especially useful to locate overly long sentences. If you need to take a breath in the middle of a sentence, then it’s probably too long.

There are lots of resources online to help you practise writing in plain English:

MrReid.org has compiled lists of common words and included instructions to configure MS Word to highlight uncommon words in your writing.

The Plain Language Action and Information Network provides writing tips, guidelines and common word suggestions.

The Centre for Plain Language has a five-step checklist to help you structure and write documents in plain English.

Simply Put has published their top five plain English writing tips.

Plain English Campaign has several free downloadable writing guides including general guides, glossaries, special subject guides and grammar guides.

The Plain Language Association International coordinates the bi-annual PLAIN Conference for plain-language supporters, advocates, professionals and organisations.

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About

Monica is a content curator, social media and digital specialist and greyhound owner. She is a valuable member of The Copy Collective team and author of some of our most popular posts on social media.

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