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Writing Effectively (in plain English)

15 May 2023
Effective Top Tens - Podcast
Quick, practical tips on a wide range of management and personal development themes.
Simple tips to improve your writing skills, avoid common mistakes and communicate more effectively.

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Less is more – keep it short

some people use the acronym KISS – Keep It Short & Simple.  And the Plain English Campaign recommend that no sentence should be longer than 20 words. And another principle for a short sentence is that it should contain one idea. You can elaborate on that idea. So one idea, plus it's example or justification and then stop before you start another idea.


Use short words

Everyday language has shorter words. So instead of precipitation, we would say rain instead of perambulation we would say walk. So a useful tip really is to think how you would say it and then write it pretty much as you would say it. The objective of any communication is to get your point across quickly and simply, and it's no help if the other person receiving it has to translate it from long and difficult to short and simple.


Use everyday language

Speak and write in everyday language. Keep it simple. Keep it familiar. Speak and write to express, not to impress.


Tailor language to suit audience

This might contradict the previous point- because there are always exceptions to any rule! So you might want to use more legally-based language if writing to a solicitor.  Perhaps a more general point is to use the terms they use – for example do they refer to staff as staff, employees, colleagues or team members?  Use their preference, rather than your own.  Put yourself out to put the other person in.


Avoid redundant phrases

Here's an example. “Here's a check for the sum of 10 pounds.” The phrase “for the sum of” is not necessary.  It’s redundant.  It add length, rather than value.  Another favourite of mine is how many people end a letter with the phrase “I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you…” Simply say thank you.


Choose your tense

Consider two tenses, the active tense and the passive tense. The active tense always starts with the subject. In this case, I then the verb, the active. Love, and then the object, which is you. So subject first, then active verb, then object. I love you. That's the active tense. I love you.

The passive tense turns that around. It starts with the object first - you; then we make the verb passiv: are loved, and then we include the subject by me. So the passive tense would be, you are loved by me. So then we have the two examples:  active, I love you. Passive: you are loved by me.

There are three problems with passive. First of all, it's always longer. You are loved by me is five words. I love you is three words. So whenever we write in the passive tense, it's longer. Secondly, it's not natural. I don't think you will have heard anybody say, oh darling, you are loved by me. I think people would typically say, I love you. So the passive language is artificial. It's a construct.

The natural way of speaking is to use the active tense. I love you. And following on from that, the active tense as the name implies is much more dynamic. It's much more alive. It has much more energy about it. I love. Yes, that sounds great. Oh, darling, you are loved by me. Sounds rather flat. It sounds a bit insincere.

So the passive tense is artificial. It takes longer and it's a bit flat. So why do we use it? And the answer is we use the passive tense as a construct to place the focus on the object, not the subject. And that's why it’s a format for most science, for most policies, for most procedures, because in those circumstances, it doesn't matter who the doer is.

So when you went to school and perhaps did chemistry, you would write up an experiment such as: the potassium permanganate was placed in the flask; heat was applied to the flask and the results were observed and written up. That's all passive tense. To doer, the experimenter, the scientist is irrelevant.

What we need to focus on is the process. So it's horses for courses. If you're writing to try and communicate energy and actively to anybody, then use the active tense. If what you want to focus on is the process or the policy or the routine or the science, then it's okay to use the passive. But you will create more energy, more directness, more personalized communication if you use the active tense.


Use affirmative language

I get quite frustrated when I ask somebody how they are and they say things like, “oh, mustn’t grumble” or “not too bad.” It's, it's quite a downer to receive those kinds of comments because they're phrased in a negative way.

The emphasis is on grumble or bad. And the fact that we're not too bad, we're just bad enough. So be wary of using negative turns of phrase. If you have children, you'll know that if you say to the child, “don't run down the corridor”, what you've actually done is placed the idea of running down the corridor in that child's head. They're much more likely now to run down that corridor. So if you were to say instead, walk quietly, Then that's the idea that they will take away walk and quietly. So use affirmative language that is positive in its intent and description.


Choose top down or bottom up

Are you a top-down person or are you bottom up person?  If you start writing something, do you start pretty much as a stream of consciousness, you just start writing top left-hand corner, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

And then either as you're writing or at the end of your writing, you look over what you've written and think, Hm, I need to improve that. I need to change that. That needs to go there instead of there. And then I need to move that from there to there. And perhaps I need to cross that bit out and make it shorter.

And what you're doing is using a top-down approach, which means getting everything down that you can think of and then editing it into something better. So if you're a top down person, the key skill you're going to require and use is editing.  Or you might be a bottom up person. What you do is start with the key messages or bullet points that you want to get across. You want to make this point, then this point and this. And then for each of those points, you embellish, you elaborate, you provide greater description, justification, examples. So you're building up your text. Having started with a basic message and decided to build on those messages and therefore the key skill you need is compiling.

So are you better at editing or better at compiling? It doesn't really matter. Both will work, but you need to decide if your core skill needs to be editing or compiling.


Avoid nominalisations

That's a big jargon word, and what it means is taking a verb and making it into a noun. Here’s an example. Someone might say “we need to come to a decision.” They’ve taken the verb decide and made it into a noun, decision. As a consequence, they have to find another verb to support the noun. So instead of saying ‘we need to decide’ they have to say ‘we need to come to a decision’ which is less energising, and longer.


Avoid jargon​ and abbreviations

Language should be matched to its audience; generally speaking, most people don’t understand jargon or abbreviations until or unless they are explained (which takes time).  So their use can exclude people. They are a bit club-like. if you're in the know, they're a shorthand that speeds up communication, But if you're not in the know, they're very excluding and exclusive. So they keep people out who don't understand and they include only those who do understand.  So a solicitor speaking to a solicitor might be quite comfortable using familiar jargon. Doctors are the same. They'll use jargon. All doctors will understand, but for you and me, assuming we're not solicitors or doctors it's baffling, we don't understand it. So we feel excluded and perhaps weaker for not knowing and being reluctant to ask.  So avoid jargon, avoid abbreviations, unless you know the other person is comfortable and familiar with them.

Effective Top Tens - Podcast
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