Plain language writing means writing that’s clear and concise and avoids long words and complicated grammar. In business and government writing its tone is usually neutral – neither too casual nor too formal.
Why do it? Mainly because it’s easier to read than wordy bureaucratese. For you as the writer, that’s good: a comfortable reader is a happy reader, and a happy reader will be more cooperative and more open to your ideas.
Plain language is also easier to write – once you know how. That’s an important proviso. All skills need to be learnt. As with any skill, it takes care and attention to do it well.
Luckily, it’s not rocket science. You can put the key tips for writing a good sentence in half a dozen dot points. Prefer shorter words to longer words. Keep most sentences short and grammatically simple. Avoid jargon (unless you’re talking to a specialised group of readers who you’re sure will understand it).
You can find these and other useful tips on plain language in the new Australian Government Style Manual.
But there’s another part of good writing that’s harder to put in a few dot points, though it’s probably more important. That’s the thinking you need to do before you even start.
Why are you writing this document? Who do you expect will read it? What do they want from it, or what do you want them to want? Are you writing to inform, persuade or make a call to action?
Are you answering a reader’s need (for example, giving information in response to a request)? Or are you trying to push out information to readers who didn’t ask for it and may not be that interested? That will affect how hard you need to work to keep their attention.
How much do your readers know about your topic, and how much do they need to be told? How much detail do you need to go into to support your key points?
How much time do you expect your readers to give you? Is this an all-staff memo about new arrangements at the cafeteria, which most people will click away from in 10 seconds? Or is it a new policy discussion paper with issues that the experts will want to mull over for hours?
In light of that, what’s your word limit? If you don’t have room to say everything you might like to, what’s most important? What’s in, what’s out? What’s the right order of material to make your points in the best way?
The answers to these questions will affect each other in all sorts of ways. That’s why it’s hard to cover them in a general rule or a quick tip – you really need to unpack the possible combinations.
That’s why, if writing is a significant part of your job, it’s good idea to do a writing course every now and then to improve your skills. It’s about much more than grammar and punctuation: it’s about deciding the best approach to a writing task after considering all these questions.
But if we had to put the key point in one line, it would be: imagine your readers – their needs, their knowledge, their attention span. It’s about them, not about you.