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How to write clearly using plain English

The voluntary sector is very good at communicating but frequently works with government departments and the corporate world, who aren't.

If all around you are using jargon and clunky sentences, after a time you'll find these are the expressions that come to mind. So here are some tips to help you use plain English in your writing.

Things you'll need

  • A little time
  • A clear head
  • Highlighters (either the pens or on the computer)
  • A dictionary and thesaurus

Write a first draft

Plan your document, setting out each stage that you want to cover. But once you've done that, just write it.

The first draft is about getting the information down on paper or onto the screen. Don't fret about the quality of the language, the spellings, the grammar or whether it makes sense.


Review your text

When you’ve finished writing, take a break before rereading what you’ve written. You will probably want to change some things anyway and this is a good time to check spellings, but once you’ve done that it’s time to go through with your highlighter.

Look out for and highlight:

  • jargon
  • superfluous words
  • the really long sentences – anything over 30 words needs a rethink
  • punctuation.

Tackle the jargon

Change jargon into everyday language by asking yourself what exactly you mean by it.

‘Key’ or ‘robust’ may be the right word. But as yourself why something is key (is it important or essential?) or robust (because it’s tried and tested, well considered or well researched?)

Avoid terms like ‘service users’ and ‘stakeholders’ unless they’re absolutely essential to the meaning. So for example say, “A hundred people eat at the centre every day” instead of “A hundred service users eat at the centre every day”.


Delete superfluous words

Look out for extra words that you don’t really need like ‘in order to’ instead of ‘to’, ‘together with’ or ‘in conjunction with’ instead of ‘with’ on its own.

And then there’s a raft/range/wide range/number/plethora and variety of wordy expressions that can be replaced with ‘several’, ‘many’ and ‘various’, or just deleted altogether.


Shorten your sentences

You will notice that your sentences are more concise once you have deleted superfluous words.

However, you may find that in some places you have made a point, and then had to qualify it by explaining background information as an afterthought in lots of sub clauses. If you have, reorder the information and use more than one sentence to rewrite it, use SentenceCheckup to check the structure.


Check your punctuation

Keep your punctuation simple and you are unlikely to make mistakes with it.

Full stops and commas will serve you well, especially if you use short sentences. Semi-colons are overrated and frequently over-used – incorrectly. Bullet points are excellent for lists, but avoid bulleting whole documents.


The Plain English Campaign

The Plain English Campaign has been 'Fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979.'

They have a number of free guides on their website, including How to write in plain English, Basic grammar and an A to Z of legal phrases.

On the 14th December each year they herald Plain English Day and present awards for the best and worst examples of plain English.

If you would like to make sure that your document meets their Crystal Mark, you can apply to have it reviewed.

Further information

Improve your grammar tutorial on the Bristol University website


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Page last edited Oct 23, 2018 History

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