Plain language writing guide

If you want more people to read what you’ve written and to understand what you mean, the tips in this plain English writing guide will help.

If you are writing to entertain, there’s nothing like foreshadowing, suspense and colorful language to engage your audience.

If you are writing to inform, you need to be clear. You need to be precise. You need to write in plain English. Or in plain French or German or whatever language. Readability is what matters.

  • The easier your text is to read, the more people will read it.
  • The easier your text is to read, the more of it people will read.
  • The easier your text is to read, the more people will understand your message.
  • The easier your text is to read, the fewer errors people will make.
  • The easier your text is to read, the less people will gloss over your message as they read it.

Good copywriters know that it’s not about what people are capable of reading when pushed to their limits. Readability is about what people are willing, motivated and have the time and patience to read. Clear, simple writing expands your audience and makes your message more effective. The ultimate goal is clarity, so that as many people read and understand accurately as much of what you write as possible.

Follow the plain language writing tips in this guide to make your writing crisp, clear and readable, or hire one of our plain language writers and editors to do it for you.

Write in plain English

Plain language writing and editing tips

The tips in this plain language writing guide are organized by category.

  1. Readable structure
  2. Plain English writing style
  3. Content in plain English
  4. Readable paragraphs
  5. Readable lists
  6. Readable sentences
  7. Readable words
  8. Plain language editing tips

How can I write more clearly?

Readable structure

  1. Start with the most important point. A logline summary would be ideal. Readers should know exactly what to expect in your text.
  2. Structure your text with subheadings.
  3. Use a table of contents so that people can quickly find the section that interests them.
  4. Plain English writing style

  5. Write for the reader, not for yourself. You know what you are trying to say – make sure the reader does, too.
  6. Write to the reader, using the pronoun “you” as much as possible. Avoid the third person when the second person works.
  7. Write in a conversational tone. Plain language is personal
  8. Write to a Grade 8 reading level, regardless of the audience (almost). If you are writing something technical for an expert audience, the readability level should ideally still be at grade 8, plus the technical terminology that is required. Most of these tips apply equally to astrophysicists and epidemiologists.
  9. If you are writing to an audience whose first language is not English, you might want to aim for a grade 6 or 7 reading level.
  10. Write in the active voice. For instance, “The Ravens won the championship,” not “The championship was won by the Ravens.”
  11. Content in plain English

  12. Stick to your topic. If there are interesting side notes and back stories, place a link for people to follow if interested.
  13. Don’t assume your readers understand the context. Be explicit and provide context.
  14. Don’t repeat context unless it was last mentioned several pages earlier.
  15. Readable paragraphs

  16. Keep each paragraph to a narrow focus.
  17. If a paragraph can be broken into two focuses, do it.
  18. Readable lists

  19. If you have a list in a sentence, replace it with a bullet list.
  20. Use a numbered list to prioritize, to show steps to take or to keep track of the count.
  21. Write each item in a list in the same manner (parallel construction). If you start one item with “to”, start them all with “to”. If you start one item with a verb in the infinitive, start them all that way.
  22. Readable sentences

  23. Use the simplest sentence construction – subject-verb-object.
  24. Vary sentence length. Shorter is better than longer, but variety keeps readers engaged.
  25. Keep each sentence to a single idea.
  26. If you have more than one idea in a sentence, split it into two (or three) sentences.
  27. If you have commas in your sentences, that might be a sign the you should break up the sentence.
  28. If you have conjunctions in your sentences, that might be a sign that you should break up the sentence. There is nothing wrong with “and” or “but”. But, if you want to be better understood, you might be able to break up your sentence.
  29. It’s OK to start a sentence with “and”, “but” or “or”. Plain language is conversational and this would be preferable to a long sentence with multiple ideas. And it is better than starting the sentence with “however” or “furthermore”.
  30. Avoid subordinate clauses as much as possible. Conjunctions such as “whereas” and “in light of” often signify subordinate clauses that should provide context in separate sentences.
  31. Readable words

  32. Use the simplest word possible. “Use” is simpler than “utilize”.
  33. Use the best known word possible. “Branch” is better known than “bough”.
  34. Clarity is most important, so use the word that your audience will understand best. If you are writing to scientists, that might mean using very precise terminology. If you are writing to the public, that terminology might confuse them rather than clarify.
  35. On the Web, use the same words people use to find your information in the search engines.
  36. If you must use technical terms with a general audience, explain them clearly at a grade 8 level or lower.
  37. When you have to use multiple big words, such as in the name of an organization or a report, use the fewest and smallest words possible around it.
  38. When writing about a multi-word entity, such as an organization or a report, refer to it as “the Committee” or “the Report”.
  39. If referring to “the Committee” or “the Report” would be unclear, such as if there are more than one Committee mentioned, use the acronym.
  40. Define any acronym the first time you use it.
  41. Don’t use jargon unless you are speaking exclusively to an audience that understands it – including foreign language readers.
  42. On the Internet, use the ABBR tag to define the acronym each time you use it.
  43. Remove unnecessary words. “Essentially”, “available” and “in order” are just three of the words that can usually be removed.
  44. Use verbs for actions or things that happen, rather than nouns.
  45. Search for words that end in “ion”. These might be nouns that should be words. For instance, if you wrote “make a contribution”, you can replace it with “contribute”.
  46. Use the simplest tense possible. Usually, that’s the present tense.
  47. Replace adverbs with stronger, more precise verbs whenever possible.
  48. Replace adjectives with stronger, more precise nouns whenever possible.
  49. Use common contractions whenever possible. They are more conversational.
  50. Don’t repeat the same word within a sentence.
  51. Avoid using strings of nouns as adjectives. For instance, “The Committee report’s implementation conclusions” could be replaced by “The conclusions of the Committee report on implementing”.
  52. Avoid uncommon contractions, such as shan’t or wouldn’t. These are not plain English.
  53. Replace vague words with precise words for clarity. Avoid double meanings. Plain language writing is about clarity above all.
  54. Use positive words. Rather than “Get here no later than 10:00,” write “Get here by 10:00.”
  55. Plain language editing tips

  56. Check your readability, and edit if needed.
  57. Read it out loud, and pretend you are speaking to your 89 year old immigrant grandmother. If you can picture her looking confused or asking you to repeat something, you might want to edit it.
  58. Proofread! A missing word, the wrong word, a typo or a word inserted into the wrong place can really trip up a reader.

How’s your plain English writing?

Now that you’ve read this plain English writing guide, do you see them reflected in your writing? If not, can you improve your writing by using the tips in this guide?

If you need help, let us know. We have plain language editors and writers ready to help you.

About David Leonhardt

David Leonhardt is President of The Happy Guy Marketing, a published author, a "Distinguished Toastmaster", a former consumer advocate, a social media addict and experienced with media relations and government reports.

Read more about David Leonhardt



Comments

  1. Thanks David, I’m glad to know it’s best to keep it simple when writing. I like your reminder to use the word “you” more often than not.
    Are there any tools to check on the 8th-grade writing level?
    I also like your tip on subordinate clauses – something I need to look out for. Thank you again for these helpful tips!

  2. Hello David,

    What a brilliant list and full of awesome suggestions for a newbie blogger like me. A couple of things that I want to run past you though. As a trained freelance website developer I know a bit about CSS.
    I had noticed that a few of the list items (your content) was being cut off and I had to use something called inspect element to change those on the fly.
    If you find #content .post ol li, #content .page ol li in your CSS file, I simply changed the width value from 100% to 90% and I cloud read the whole post without anything getting cut off under the sidebar.

    As a British Blogger I like to write what we Brits refer to as The Queens English which may at times confuse you Americans. For instance, we like to use MATHS instead of MATH or another example is PAVEMENT instead of SIDEWALK. Should I make these distinctions clear to my American readers of which I do have quite a few now?

    Well, that’s my two pennies worth. I hope that you find the CSS Hack useful but do reach out to me if you need help implementing it.

    Best,
    Phillip Dews

    • David Leonhardt says

      Hi Phillip.

      I have a similar problem, in that I have to leave off the “o” in colour and honour and other such words, and re-arrange the letters in centre. I don’t bother explaining, I just recognize that my main audience on this website speaks American.

      However, Canadian vocabulary isn’t as different from American vocabulary (except for “soda” and “pop”, and don’t get me started on the French version “liqueur” or “liqueur douce” in Canadian French, which doesn’t mean at all the same thing as in France!)

      Anyway, your American Doctor Who fans will understand “maths” from Danny Pink. And a few readers might even recognize it from Man’s Not Hot.

      My advice is to write for your main audience, and make no excuses. While there are plenty of uneducated people out there, most of your audience has surely been exposed to some British movies and TV shows. And most of your home audience has been exposed to plenty of American TV and film, too.

      • Phillip Dews says

        Hi David,

        Yep, all good advice fella. I must apologize though as I called you American earlier not realizing that you are Canadian. I humbly apologize for that anyway.
        Yep, I realize that Doctor Who is very popular over the pond. I myself am not anymore. David Tennant in my humble opinion is the best Doctor we ever had.

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