Armada training
Five top tips for writing in Plain English

Good writing skills using Plain English are a core business skill. People that write well at work are good communicators. On the whole, good writers have credibility at work, they get promoted and they get salary increases.

So here are our top five tips to improve your writing at work using Plain English…

1. Design before you start

Make sure you’re writing to a plan. Design your document before you start, don’t just start using the keyboard. You should know the content of each paragraph before starting the document. Use keywords for each paragraph. You can change the plan once you’ve started – that’s what happens with plans – just make sure you have a starting point at least.

2. Make your document easy to scan

People don’t read any more; everyone scans. It’s the result of everyone being overloaded with emails and information. For your writing to be read, it has to be easily scanned.

Front-load your writing so that the main point is in the first two lines. A carefully argued case with the conclusions at the end won’t get read. Give conclusions at the start and then substantiate on these.

To make your document easy to scan, use tables and lists. Use sub-headings so readers can focus on the critical areas for them.

3. Be concise

Research shows that this is the single greatest factor that improves readability. Have as your motto, ‘Short words, short sentences and short paragraphs are best.’

It’s so easy to reduce your word count simply by deleting the unnecessary. Most people can reduce the number of words contained in a document or email by around one third.

Sentence lengths should be no more than 17/18 words long. Avoid great, long, rambling sentences to improve readability. Try and limit sentences to one idea. Don’t cover multiple ideas in the same sentence.

4. Check readability

When you’ve completed your document check readability. Get a Flesch Reading Ease score for your document. This is one statistic that rarely lies. It tells you how easy it is to understand your writing.

You should be getting Reading Ease scores of about 60 for business writing. If your score is below this, you need to revise your document to get a higher score.

5. Don’t make silly errors

Spelling and grammar checkers aren’t perfect. The only way to prevent silly errors in your writing is to review what you’ve written. Read through it carefully, with focus and concentration. Then repeat this process. If it’s a particularly important document, get a colleague to proof-read it. We all get too close to our own writing to spot our own mistakes.

The problem with silly mistakes with grammar and punctuation is that they affect your credibility. Don’t believe the idea that correct grammar doesn’t matter anymore. It matters hugely.

So those are our top tips for Plain English writing. They apply whether you just write emails, or need to produce detailed reports for senior management.

Armada offers a one-day Plain English training course that teaches techniques for producing documents that are clear and concise. We can host the course at one of our centres in Birmingham/Bromsgrove, Bristol, Reading, Milton Keynes and Sheffield, or at your venue.

Nigel Platts

About the author

Nigel is Managing Director and Co-Founder of Armada Technical Authors with over thirty five years’ experience in user-assistance in a wide range of roles including Technical Writer, Manager, Consultant and Trainer.   Nigel continues to undertake projects from time to time to keep up-to-date with the latest technologies and practices. His areas of expertise include software for local government, accountancy and finance.

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