Let Me Say this in Plain English
Why write this article in plain English? For the same reason you should write all your business materials in plain English. Yes, even if your audience is a group of astrophysicists. Even if your client base is lawyers. Even if you are writing for university professors.
You will be much more successful when writing in plain English (or plain Spanish, or plain French, etc.) than if you were to use decorative words that no one understands. First, I will tell you why; then, I will show you how.
Plain language is writing how people read the easiest, NOT dumbing it down.
Why write in plain language
People are lazy and want to receive information in the easiest way possible. If you want them to read your letters, reports, articles, marketing pamphlets, or anything else, use plain language. Readers will stay interested and actually remember what they read.
Somewhere around grades 6th to 8th, you stop learning how to read. Sure, you learned new words and perfected your skills, but your basic reading patterns are set like cement. Even if you went on to complete law school, your natural reading level remains around grade 8.
Now for the question I get all the time: “Lawyers always read at like, grade 27. They read material so complicated that it looks like gibberish to me. Surely, they can read pretty much anything I write, right?
The answer is “yes,” they can. But that’s the wrong question to ask. The right question is: “Will they?”
If I made $250 per hour to read gibberish, I would read it, too.
If by reading gibberish, I could charge $250 per hour, I would read it, too.
If your audience is less motivated, they won’t try so hard. Here is what will happen:
- They won’t bother reading
- They will misunderstand what you say
- They simply won’t understand at all
How to write in plain language
It should be easy to write in plain language. After all, it’s the way we talk. But as soon as people start writing for business, they try to impress. They fall into the purple prose trap.
Just how hard is it to write in plain language? I did a study to find out. I looked just at the abstracts of three studies on readability. Abstracts are short summaries of research. They measure between grades 16 and 19 for readability. You can read my report here. If readability experts can’t even write readable text, how can you?
There are many ways to write plain language. Here are four of the most important.
1. Simple sentence structure.
The most important way to write plain language is to use simple sentence structure.
We learned to read like this: subject, verb, object. For example:
“We tested the machines.”
We then learned to better describe each element. For example:
“Our scientists tested all four models.” Note that the structure is still the same.
We then learned to add qualifiers, such as where, when and how. For example:
- “Our scientists tested all four models vigorously in our Lansing plant.”
- “Our scientists tested all four models before approving them for sale.”
- “Our scientists tested all four models for safety every year.”
Note that sentence structure is still the same, but we have added qualifying clauses.
We could have written this sentence in a more complicated way:
“All our models were vigorously tested in the Lansing plant by our scientists last year.”
This is still a somewhat simple sentence, but the structure has changed. It now uses the passive voice which is not how we learned to read. If you have many sentences like this in any given paragraph, it will read like gibberish. Even lawyers won’t want to read it, unless they are paid to. So stick to simple sentence structure.
2. Short words
Sadly, it gets worse. When we add purple prose, we get a mess. For example:
“Our advanced models have been subjected to the most rigorous testing in the industry when our scientists put them through 34 individual inspections for safety, effectiveness, durability, and quality at our plant in Lansing, Michigan, last year.”
Whoa! That 37-word sentence is a mouthful. You can check its readability, which is at grade 20.2. There are two obvious things that can be done right away: shorten some words and shorten some sentences.
We remove some complex words for a shorter sentence like this:
“Our models were rigorously tested when our scientists put them through 34 tests for safety, effectiveness, durability, and quality at our plant in Lansing, Michigan, last year.”
3. Short sentences
That’s better. We are down to 28 words (still quite long) and grade 10.5 readability. All we did was remove some big words, and we also ended up with a shorter sentence. Now, look at the first clause. It’s not even needed, because 34 tests sounds pretty rigorous. Let’s remove “rigorously” and write it in simple sentence structure:
“Our scientists put all our models through 34 tests for safety, effectiveness, durability, and quality at our plant in Lansing, Michigan, last year.”
At 24 words and grade 9.2 reading level, this sentence is easier to read. So far, we did NOT dumb it down; we made it clearer for the reader.
4. Bullet lists
Here is one last easy trick for you. In our sentence, we have a list. It’s a short list. Each item is just a single word. It would be pure gibberish if each item had five to ten words. Still, a list is a list, and people read lists easier when they look like lists. For example:
“Our scientists put all our models through 34 tests at our plant in Lansing, Michigan, last year. These tests were for:
The two shorter sentences, including a bullet list, are at grade 5.9 readability, without dumbing it down. It is easy to read. It is clear for readers. They will keep reading. They will understand.