“Plain English is a way of presenting information that helps someone understand it the first time they read or hear it. It allows them to get the information they need, understand it easily and act if they need to.”

This definition is drawn from 26TEN’s excellent booklet, Communicate Clearly. A Guide to Plain English. Do you know about 26TEN? It relates to our 26 letters of the alphabet and ten numerals, and is a network of people and organisations working together to improve literacy and numeracy rates in Tasmania. Apparently nearly 50% of adults are ‘functionally’ illiterate in our state. That’s a shocking statistic and one we clearly need to rectify.

What’s in it for business?

Research shows that using plain English in business can truly save money – even lives in the health and safety arena. Clear English in business publications, for example, can reduce the need for re-writing of documents, or for staff to spend valuable time answering questions from confused customers. I’m all for it.

Why do we write confusingly anyway?

In her excellent book, Clear and Concise: Become a better business writer, Susan McKerihan explains that our education is at fault. By the time we get into business, we have been “conditioned to believe it’s essential to write as much and as elaborately as possible”. After all, we were taught at Uni to demonstrate excellence in thinking, right? There is also precious little time to edit and refine written drafts in today’s workplace, thanks to the pressure of deadlines. But worst of all, perhaps, is the following widely-held view: to demonstrate we are experienced and professional, and to impress the boss, we need to use “complicated, overly formal language”.

This is not so, and I’m thrilled that every day I rub up against people in business who would like to have their writing edited for clarity. They appreciate the value of writing for the reader.

How to write in plain English

  • Use plenty of white space in your document
  • Choose a font that is large enough
  • Left-align text
  • Avoid background images
  • Write in a clear (but elegant) way
  • Write for your reader (not to impress)
  • Organise your information in a useful sequence
  • Keep documents short
  • Use everyday words and the active voice
  • Keep sentences short
  • Edit, proofread then test your document with readers

The plain English movement

Plain English is a movement, represented internationally by PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational), in Ireland by Simply Put, in the UK by the Plain English Campaign, in the USA by Plain Language.gov and in Australia (Sydney) by the Plain English Foundation.

I am excited to see it getting a push and some momentum in Tasmania through 26TEN; the State Government is behind the campaign. Writing in plain English, without jargon and horribly long sentences, will help even the most literate reader.

If you need any help rendering a document less confusing, Hit Send editors can help.