Clear writing 101

A brief introduction

When I was brainstorming ideas for this post on clear writing for beginners, I remembered a quote from one of my favorite book series EVER: Anne of Green Gables. So let’s start with that:

ANNE. I shall never write another story again.

GILBERT. Oh, I wouldn’t give up all together. Maybe if you just let your characters speak everyday English, instead of all that highfalutin mumbo-jumbo.

ANNE. You think my story’s full of faults, too, don’t you?

GILBERT. “Wilt thou give up thy garter, oh fairest of the fair”? Anne, nobody speaks that way.

Not exactly legal language, but you get the point, right? As Gilbert points out, when it comes to non-expert communication, mumbo-jumbo gets us nowhere and using plain language is the right way to go.

How to get started

Do you want to write clear texts, but don’t know how to start? This post is for you!

But first, let me share a personal story with you:

A few weeks ago, my doctor prescribed antibiotics and the information leaflet was in Dutch, a language I speak and understand, let’s say, 50%. To my surprise, the leaflet was written in plain language.

So, even though I don’t master the language, I could:

  • easily find what I needed
  • understand what I found
  • use what I found to meet my needs

My point is that, clear writing helped me (a non-expert) understand this information. As a user, I felt valued.

Now, would YOU like to give it a try?

First thing you should know is that there are lots of plain language style guides. But, to make it easier for you, I’ve summarized the most important tips in this article.

I hope you find them useful and you start using plain language soon.

1. Think about your audience

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ Who will be reading your text? What points do you need to cover? Use the “7 questions” approach to include relevant information only:

  • What
  • Who
  • When
  • Where
  • How
  • Why
  • How much

2. Be direct and interesting

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ Involve your readers by addressing them directly (by using “you”, for example)

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ Imagine which questions they might ask and make sure the document answers them

3. Make your text reader-friendly

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ If it’s a long document, show your readers the structure of the text by including a table of contents.

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ Can you use icons, graphs, or tables instead of text? Do you need a glossary or a list of definitions?

4. Cut, cut, cut

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ Ask yourself if each section and each word is really necessary. Shorter documents and shorter sentences tend to have more impact.

Compare:

  • It is unadvisable to be in control of a moving vehicle when suffering from fatigue.
  • You should not drive if you are tired.

5. Keep it simple

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ Use simple words where possible.

Compare:

  • If this is the case versus If so
  • Within the framework of versus under

6. Avoid ambiguity

7. Use the positive form, not the negative

8. Cut out excess nouns and use verbs instead

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ A sentence full of nouns is hard to read. If you can, use verbs instead. The result will often be a shorter, simpler and more dynamic text.

Compare:

  • Tourism expenditure by Europeans aged 65 or over grew by 33% in the past five years.
  • Europeans aged 65+ spent 33% more on tourism over the past five years.

9. Prefer active verbs to passive forms

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ Sentences are usually clearer and simpler (and shorter) if the verbs are in the active form rather than the passive.

10. Beware of jargon and abbreviations.

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ Jargon is vocabulary used by any group of insiders or specialists to communicate with each other, and is acceptable in documents which are only read by that group. However, if you’re writing for non-experts, make sure your text is as jargon free as possible.

πŸ‘‰πŸΌ Also, too many unfamiliar abbreviations can make a document incomprehensible and send your reader to sleep.


If you want to read more about plain legal language, you’re welcome to check my previous post here.

References:

  1. How to write clearly – EU Style Guide
  2. Clear English – Tips for Translators – European Commission
  3. Claire’s Clear Writing Tips – European Commission

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