Writing effectively in plain English isn’t just a case of ‘keeping it simple’; it starts from the beginning, with the planning stage. It’s important to start by considering who you’re writing for, why you’re writing, and exactly what you want to say, so that your messages can be clearly understood.
Next time you’re planning a piece of prose take a few minutes to consider these four points:
1. Plan ahead – what do you want to say, and what do you want to achieve?
Always begin by thinking about what you want to say before you put pen to paper or fingers to keys. The planning stage is crucial and shouldn’t be rushed. Take time to consider the points you want to make, and then put them in a logical order. For example:
- What is it?
- Why should your reader want it?
- How much does it cost?
- How can they get it?
Working this way will help your readers follow your train of thought through to the conclusion that you want them to make.
Always start with your main message, with key information highlighted and clear. If you want to add more detail further down the piece you can do – and people can always contact you for more.
Don’t try to write perfect copy from the start; get your ideas clarified first. Subheadings can help you organise your thoughts as well as guide the reader.
In a nutshell: Help your reader with a logical movement from one idea to the next; don’t skip about. First plan, then perfect your writing.
2. Identify your key messages
They’re not really your key messages; they belong to your reader. For example, if you’re updating customers on your new delivery service do they want to know about:
- The new computer system that saves your staff time in the office?
- Your company saving money on fuel through better logistics planning?
- Your new ‘just in time’ stock system becoming more efficient and saving you money?
Or would they be more interested in:
- More efficient processing meaning quicker deliveries?
- Reduced delivery prices for customers?
- Better stock availability?
If you compare examples 1, 2 and 3 in these two lists you’ll see that the basic facts are the same, but the key messages are tailored to the audience. Take time to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and look at the benefits from their point of view, not yours.
In a nutshell: It’s not all about you.
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3. Remember your reader
If you want your readers to understand what you’re writing, you need to pitch your work at the right level for your audience. You may presume your reader will know something about your topic, but don’t assume they’re an expert. They could well be new to your industry or just on a fact-finding mission.
Write with authority, as if you’re speaking to an equal; don’t patronise or try to impress.
Adapt your writing to your readers’ needs rather than your own personal preferences. If you turn your readers off, they probably won’t come back.
In a nutshell: Write in a professional, confident but relaxed style, with your readers’ needs in mind. Think about what they want to know, and keep it short and to the point.
4. Consider layman’s terms
Never try to blind people with science or be too clever – if readers don’t understand you, they won’t stick around.
Even ‘layman’s terms’ is writers’ jargon really. After all, who really knows what a layman is? So avoid jargon and technical terms where possible. Apart from the fact that they can make your writing harder to understand, they also tend to interrupt the flow. If you do need to use specialist language, make sure you explain it.
In a longer document you can of course include a glossary, or a key abbreviations list, but if you’re writing for the web or another short piece such as a leaflet, this won’t work. A good test is to show your work to someone who doesn’t know about the subject and ask them whether it’s clear. And read it out loud to yourself – does it sound natural or stilted?
In a nutshell: Keep it simple. Explain terms where needed and remember, there’s always another way of expressing your industry jargon.
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