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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.