Be short, be simple, be human: an introduction to plain writing

Posted on 15 October 2014 by Emily Stella

You may hear people (including me) bang on about plain writing, and you may be unsure what this really means. I want to demystify something rather simple and explain why it’s so important in business writing.

What is plain writing?

The principle of plain writing is to say only what is necessary and in the simplest language possible.

This means stripping out extra words, commonly known as ‘padding’ or ‘fluff’, and swapping long pretentious words for simple ones. Sounds easy, and it is, but you need to analyse your own writing and recognise how you can streamline it.

Cut the fluff

Let’s look at an example and see how we can transform it by applying the plain writing principle.

It should be noted that, in order to meet these objectives, a very long list of interventions was developed following input from the client team, the study team, and from input obtained from stakeholder workshops.

This sentence is 35 words, which is far too long. Aim for your sentences to be 15-20 words on average, although many should be shorter.

Now here’s a revised version:

Information from clients and stakeholders helped us create a list of interventions.

This sentence is 12 words. Much better and hopefully much easier to read and understand.

Nailing this takes practice, so why don’t you give it a go on your own work?

Choose simple words

Most of us think that if we write in sophisticated language others will think we’re intelligent and professional. Wrong.

People are so much more impressed when you can convey yourself clearly and succinctly. That’s how you will shine among your peers. So please swap your ‘impressive’ language with a plainer version.

Here are some examples:

aggregate   →   total
alleviate   →   ease, reduce
constitute   →   make up, form
determine   →   decide
expenditure   →   spending, costs
expedite   →   speed up

I think you get the gist.

Our good friend, Albert Einstein, summed things up pretty well:


So why be a plain writer?

1. You’ll become a clearer thinker.
2. People will understand you better.
3. Your clarity will impress your clients.
4. You will outperform your peers.
5. It will open doors for you.

Fancy yourself as a plain-writing master? The Complete Plain Words by Ernest Gowers is a great place to start.