Ten tips to remember about writing in plain language

I’m sorry, the title lies. Not just once, but twice. Why? Because there’s only five things you have to do to write plainly, and you don’t have to remem­ber much at all — in fact, it’s better to forget.

Because once you’ve got the hang of head­ings, bullets and the differ­ence between pass­ive and active voice, all those things that any decent plain language course, book or website will teach you, you’re still left with a whole lot of baggage that can stop you in your tracks, and slowly and subtly convince you that your way was best after all.

So, these are the things you have to forget. They’re not easy to hear, so sit down, make some tea, then take a deep breath before you read on.

  1. Forget your educa­tion. Okay, maybe not the bits about gram­mar and spelling, but defin­itely the bits where you star­ted to assume that using long words and complic­ated phras­ing was just… better. More soph­ist­ic­ated, maybe. Erudite, even. A sign of intel­li­gence and under­stand­ing. I’ve had quite a lot of educa­tion. I went to Oxford University until they kicked me out, and I’ve been to two more univer­sit­ies since. Then I star­ted volun­teer­ing — help­ing people learn to read, and guess what — none of that helped. So I hate to break it to you, but if you want to reach people who are not you and your simil­arly educated friends, you need to forget.
  2. Forget your assump­tions. Just because someone can’t under­stand the words you use and the way you use them does not mean they can never under­stand what you’re trying to say. Very little is too complic­ated except that we make it so.
  3. Forget gloss­ar­ies. Treat them as an admis­sion of fail­ure — that you don’t under­stand your subject well enough to be able to explain it without one.
  4. Forget writ­ing for writ­ing’s sake. Write for read­ing’s sake. If you can’t read it aloud and feel right saying it, some­thing needs changing.
  5. Forget your bosses. You are not writ­ing for them. Go out and find the people you are writ­ing for and talk to them. Find their level. Forget repres­ent­at­ives too, except when they can put you in touch with the real deal.
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Corinne Pritchard

Information Designer at Simply Understand
I believe design and design­ers can and should make the world a better place. I love design­ing things that help people under­stand complex ideas.

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