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Plain English Day

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2012

To celebrate Plain English Day, December 10, Juno Baker offers some advice on clear communication.

Reports ‘signal direction’ and ministers ‘launch’ initiatives to ‘drive change’, so it may feel quite natural to ‘embark’ on an ‘improvement journey’. Often there’s even a ‘road-map’ or at least ‘a direction of travel’. But at some point, you will encounter ‘barriers’ and then the journey takes a surreal turn: you may be asked to ‘step up to the plate’ (What happened? Did you shrink?)

Metaphors and similes are supposed to enhance understanding by making a comparison or giving a picture, but these hackneyed stock phrases are often confusing.

When all around you are using jargon, however, it is very difficult not to. So here are some tips.

1) When you’ve finished writing, take a break before rereading what you’ve written and highlighting all the jargon. Then change the jargon into everyday language.

For example, ‘key’ or ‘robust’ may be exactly the right word. But it doesn’t do any harm to ask why something is key (is it important or essential?) or why it’s robust (because it’s tried and tested, well considered or well researched?)

Look out for extra words that you don’t really need like ‘in order to’ instead of ‘to’, ‘together with’ or ‘in conjunction with’ instead of ‘with’ on its own.

And then there’s a raft/range/wide range/ number/plethora and variety of wordy expressions that can be replaced with ‘several’, ‘many’ and ‘various’, or just deleted altogether.

2) Keep your writing concise by making only one point, sometimes two, in each sentence and by writing short sentences.

Avoid qualifying the points you make by explaining background information as an afterthought in lots of sub clauses. If you find yourself doing this, reorder the information and use more than one sentence to rewrite it.

3) Use simple punctuation. Full stops and commas will serve you well, especially if you stick to using short sentences. Semi-colons are overrated and frequently over-used (incorrectly). Bullet points are excellent for lists, but avoid bulleting whole documents. These guidelines will help you write more clearly but, as George Orwell once said: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Juno Baker is a freelance writer and editor who specialises in the public and voluntary sectors.

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