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How to write in Plain English

We want to bring our audience along on our mission, not impress them with our intelligence.

This three step approach to writing in Plain English will help to achieve your business communication goals.

1. Write drunk, edit sober

The first step is just to get something on paper (OK. It’s 2016. Screen.) Once you have a base of content to work from, you can start to add a structure and tidy up.

Helpful tip – add subheadings to each of your paragraphs that sum up the ‘point’. You can delete these once you’re done, but in the editing process they will force you to make better decisions about how you group and order information.

Now you have a first draft. I like to do something else at this point – work on a different project, or catch up on email or phone-calls. The key is to create some mental distance between you and your work, so that you can approach Step 2 with a fresh eye.

2. Seek and destroy

This is my favourite bit. Work through your writing from top to bottom and be absolutely ruthless in the following:

  • Change jargon to everyday words
  • Remove words and sentences that distract from your main point.
  • Eliminate useless fillers that dilute your message. High up on my hit list are: very, really, just, also. These are feeble creatures with no place in good business writing. Eliminate.
  • Shorten long sentences. There are many rules of thumb floating around (15, 20, 25 words). My rule? As long as it needs to be, and no longer. Make one point per sentence.

“If you find your own writing boring, so will someone else”
– Michael Dirda, Washington Post

3. Put it to the test!

An effective low-tech option is to read your writing out loud. When you need to pause, punctuate. If it’s clumsy to say, it’s clumsy to read.

Even better, read it to someone else. Do they understand it? If not, you have more changes to make.

Other useful tools to improve your writing include:

  • The spelling and grammar check on Microsoft Word. Don’t ignore it – I know, sometimes it’s stupid. But it is your greatest ally in picking up the silly mistakes that can undermine the credibility of our writing.
  • An online proof-reader. My favourite is Grammarly
  • A readability test such as www.read-able.com(FYI: if you can understand this blog post, you have a reading age of at least 12. Well done!)

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, chances are you don’t understand it yourself.

If you’re having trouble keeping it simple, make sure that you have all of the information you need to clearly explain your idea. Learn more, ask questions and try again.

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