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Plain English

"Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure that their audience understands the message easily."

Professor Robert Eagleson


Plain English is Clear English

The main goal in writing is to put your message across clearly and concisely. Readers want an effortless, readable and clear writing style. Plain English is clear English it is simple and direct but not simplistic.


Write and Edit like a Professional

Newspapers such as the Financial Times or the Washington Post; magazines such as The Economist, Time and Newsweek; and best-selling books use the straightforward, plain English style. Why? Because professional writers and editors know a clear style helps their readers understand and absorb the information presented.

Around 90 percent of the newspaper subeditors time spent improving an article for publication is cutting, simplifying and rearranging the words into a clearer style. Heres a typical subeditors redraft of a press release. The subeditor is breaking the poor writing habits of the author, to produce a better and stronger writing style.



Original Press Release

Sub-editors Redraft

A leading industry expert, Mr Bob Jones, head of the Small Business Bureau, claimed today the Governments proposal to introduce minimum working week legislation will require wider public consultation to be undertaken. If the government follows this advice, interested parties will be given an opportunity to understand and raise their concerns prior to the legislation being enacted by Parliament. Industry, trade bodies and unions need to study the draft bill before the Government introduces this new law, said Mr Jones.

Mr Bob Jones, head of the Small Business Bureau, said of the Governments 35-hour working week proposal: Industry, trade bodies and unions need to study the draft bill before the Government introduces this new law.

Words: 80
Style Index: 75 (Poor)
Words: 35 (56% shorter)
Style Index: 0 (Excellent)



Style Index Explained

Plain English Checklist

Plain English editing and a professional subeditors skills are similar. Both use commonsense rules to guide them to produce a more concise, clearer style. The 10 most important editing principles are:

1.  Think of your readers needs.

2.  Organize your content well.

3.  Write in a natural style as if you were talking to the reader.

4.  Keep sentences short.

5.  Use active verbs.

6.  Be specific rather than general.

7.  Cut all redundant words and phrases.

8.  Use simpler words rather than complex words.

9.  Cut down on jargon.

10. Edit vigorously.


Good Writing Comes from Strong Editing

The secret to becoming a better writer is to use these principles to edit your draft. Here is a typical business memo. Good editing, using these principles cuts its length by more than half and results in a clearer style.



Business Style

Plain English Redraft

The Staff Booking Database

The main purpose of the Staff Booking Database (SBD) is for the recording of staff booking requests which in turn provides the total recurring audit cost for each client.

As a result of the recent merger that has taken place and hence the increase in the numbers of staff and clients, it is important that each business unit (BU) be used in such a way as to track and collate all staff movements. The use of the SBD allows managers in each BU to rethink on an annual basis, the way the audit was performed and make any necessary amendments to the amount of staff and the mix of skills required for the following year.

Implementing a formal process and system will not only make sure that all staff are receiving the right type of experience and exposure as they progress, but it should also be of assistance in guaranteeing our clients are receiving the most suitable mix of staff.

The Staff Booking Database

This Database records staff booking requests to calculate the audit costs for each client.

Because the merger increased our staff and client numbers, each business unit can now use the Staff Booking Database to track and collate staff movements. The Database allows managers to rethink how they perform the audit each year and change the staff and skills needed the following year.

This yearly review makes sure staff have the right work experience and our clients receive the best staff to carry out each audit.

Words: 164
Style Index106 (Dreadful)
Words:  89 (59% shorter)
Style Index: 11 (Excellent)

Only one out of 50 business and government documents is in plain English. Why? Because untrained writers draft documents full of passive verbs, long sentences, wordy phrases, complex words and other style faults.

The main problem in all writing is not a grammatical slip or an occasional typing error. We all have poor writing habits we pick up from reading hundreds of memos, business letters and reports that come across our desk. For every genuine grammar mistake corrected, good subeditors will make dozens of style changes. Do you recognise the typical business style?


Government Style

Plain English Redraft

As the applicant, it is a requirement that you provide a mailing address and an identification number when an application is made for a hardship grant.


You need to send a mailing address and an identification number when you apply for a hardship grant.


Words:  26
Style Index76 (Poor)
Words:  18 (30 % Shorter)
Style Index: 0 (Excellent)


Business Letter Style

Plain English Redraft

I trust this clarifies the matter for you and look forward to hearing from you in due course in respect of your decision whether or not you intend to take out a loan.

Please let me know if you want to take out a loan.


Words:  34
Style Index121 (Bad)
Words:  12 (65% Shorter)
Style Index: 0 (Excellent)


Report Style

Plain English Redraft

A questionnaire was circulated to the project team that were based internally. Of the ten people who were sent the questionnaire only 5 replied which is somewhat disappointing. Of those replying virtually all were aware of the history of the pilot advertising campaign and generally speaking meeting the aims and objectives of the company. The strategy was viewed to be satisfactory to meet the campaigns aims although there was some concern expressed over the limited budget available. All respondents at a managerial level were positive that the campaign did meet the requirements of the company to increase its market share.


A disappointing five out of ten managers replied to the internal project teams questionnaire. Of those replying:

" four knew of the pilots aims,

" everyone thought the strategy was satisfactory,

" two thought the budget was too small.

All managers were sure the campaign met the companys need to increase its market share.


Words:  95 (Poor)
Style Index100
Words:  51 (50% shorter)
Style Index:  0 (Excellent)

How StyleWriter Helps

StyleWriter helps you write in plain English by identifying words and phrases in your writing that detract from clarity. It questions your use of long sentences and passive verbs and aims to make you think about every word you write.

StyleWriter does not encourage a standard style that everyone should follow. Rather, by helping you break out of the typical business writing style, StyleWriter encourages you to express yourself in your own words.

The Benefits of Plain English
What are the savings in using plain English? What are the savings in using plain English?
What are the savings in using plain English? How much would your organization save if everyone wrote in plain English?
What are the savings in using plain English? Why are governments and major corporations adopting plain English?
What are the savings in using plain English? Why do nearly all plain English initiatives fail?
What are the savings in using plain English? Why does plain English software guarantee success?

What are the savings in using plain English?

National governments, councils, multinational corporations, major industry bodies and so on have adopted the plain English model for sound, commercial reasons plain English saves time and money. The savings claimed for plain English are remarkable:

  • The US Navy estimated plain English could save it between $250$300 million every year.

  • General Electric saved $275,000 by redrafting manuals into plain English.

  • The US Department of Veterans Affairs saved $40,000 redrafting one standard letter into plain English.

  • Customers in three surveys of standard letters from banks unanimously preferred the plain English versions.

  • British Telecom cut customer queries by 25 percent by using plain English.

  • The Royal Mail saved 500,000 in nine months by redesigning one form in plain English.

  • UK businesses lose 6 billion a year because of badly written letters.

  • A UK Government Plain English initiative saved 9 million in printing costs.

These savings come from organizations training key staff, employing professional writers and editors. But these people, can only edit a few of the thousands of documents produced every day in large organizations. Imagine the savings if you used training and editing software to guarantee everyone used plain English in every document.

Source: Joe Kimble Writing for Dollars

How much would your organization save if everyone wrote in plain English?

Unfortunately, the costs of poor communication do not appear in the balance sheet. If they did, you would do something to control them. In the following examples, the biggest cost is staff time (authors time plus the readers time), multiplied by the number of employees who receive the document.

1.  The United Kingdoms National Audit Office estimated the cost of producing one page in government departments varied between 3.50 ($5) to over 100 ($160).

  • The low figure was for a one-page letter, typed, printed and sent to 200 people resulting in a bill 700 ($1,120).

  • The higher figure was for each page of a short report that goes through several authors and drafts, before a senior manager presented it to the management committee. This means the cost of such a 50-page report read by 15 senior managers was 5,000 ($8,000).

2.  A government department sent a two-page memo to 15,000 employees that took an average of 10 minutes to read and process. The real cost to the department was $100,000 in salaries, overheads and associated costs. The memo was about keeping staff kitchens clean! Was it really a $100,000 problem?

3.  A bank had a sales letter rewritten by a professional, plain English editor. The clearer, redraft brought in an extra $11 million of new business. No conventional accounting method would record the previous $11 million missed business opportunity.

4.  One council sent 1.3 million pages of committee reports to councillors in one year. If councillors worked a sixteen-hour day, seven-day week, reading a page every minute, they would eventually get through all the documents after 3.7 years.

Try a simple calculation

Work out the number of sheets of paper, e-mails and faxes in your organization produces in one working day. Estimate the cost of each of these documents at $10 a page. Now calculate by the number of people who have to read them and add $1 for each person reading each document. (To give you an idea of this figure, a typical office worker receives over 100 messages a day). That will give you rough idea of the cost of your paperwork for each day. Then multiply the figure by 240 to find out a realistic cost of paperwork in your organization every year.

Plain English will cut this bill by 30 percent.

Why are governments and major corporations adopting plain English?

Today, governments, major corporations, trade associations and professional bodies across the world have adopted plain language as the style for writing all documents.

For example, in the USA, presidents Eisenhower, Ford, Carter and Clinton have all issued directives for federal employees to write in plain language. In July 1998, President Clinton stated: The Federal Governments writing must be in plain language. By using plain language, we send a clear message about what the Government is doing, what it requires, and what services it offers. Plain language saves the Government and the private sector time, effort, and money.

Writing in plain language could cut the Federal Governments paperwork by one-third, save billions of dollars and make everyones life whether working for the government or in the private sector much simpler and easier. Ordinary Americans should be able to understand what their Government says to them without having to study the text closely or to consult an expert.

The Federal Government has worked hard to introduce clearer written communications. Many government bodies such as Education, Transportation, Internal Revenue Service, Securities Exchange Commission, and Veterans Affairs have run plain-language initiatives. For two years, the Vice-Presidents office coordinated this work and encouraged all Federal employees to adopt a clearer writing style. But today, perhaps only one in fifty Federal employees uses a plain language style.

US Government runs plain English software pilot

The US Federal Government is now running a trial of Editor Softwares StyleWriter and Electronic Writing Course. The Environmental Protection Agency is using both programs to train staff in plain English editing skills and to evaluate the software for use throughout in other department and agencies.

Why do nearly all plain English initiatives fail?

Most organizations recognize customer letters, brochures, e-mails, management reports should be clear and concise but most documents fail any basic, plain English test.

The traditional response has been to put employees on business writing courses and expect one days tuition to transform the way they think and write. In tests, people going on traditional business writing courses often showed little improvement in writing style. Statistics on writing style show there is typically only a 10 percent improvement one week after the course and a month later most participants fell back to their pre-course standard.

There are many reasons for this failure. Here are the important ones.

  • The culture of business and government encourages poor writing. Most peoples writing style comes from the documents they see around them. So unless you train everyone in effective writing, improving writing standards is difficult.

  • Most people think they do write clearly, although at least 80 percent of documents in organizations are badly written and full of poor style faults. It always comes as a shock when people see how much clearer documents can become with strong editing.

  • Managers believe the problem is never with their writing style, but with the style of their staff. Managers happily send their staff to writing courses. But after the course, the managers continue to redraft the new, clearer style back into management-speak. The unspoken message to the person trying to write clearly is: Dont write clearly, write as I do.

  • Most writers are so close to their jargon and style they cannot see their writing faults. Most writers have no idea why others find their documents difficult to read and understand.

  • Many people falsely believe the long-winded, complex style of business and government is the expected and agreed style. Many employees look at existing documents and copy the style. This means people who normally speak clearly and write well, quickly pick up the bad writing habits and stilted style of their colleagues.

  • Many people learned to write at university and college where length and an impressive vocabulary seemed to be a virtue. Yet in the workplace, everyone wants short and clear documents to make their lives easier.

  • Only one person in 50 attends training in effective writing. Organizing and running courses is time-consuming and expensive. If you use outside consultants to run them, they can cost up to $1,500 for ten people. Plain language software is much more economical.

  • Theres no backup to put any effective writing training into practice. Most people only remember one-third of the training ideas and put even fewer into practice. Plain English editing software means writers constantly learn ways to improve their style.

Why does plain English software guarantee success?

To guarantee everyone in an organization writes clearly, you need to change the communication culture, train staff and give them the tools to back up the training. This has proved impossible without software.

In the same way running a spelling checker on your word processor guarantees everyone writes without typing and spelling mistakes, plain English software can guarantee the benefits of clear writing. Organizations can immediately train all staff using our Electronic Writing Course. Each employee can then run StyleWriter through letters, memos and reports until drafting in plain English becomes the standard throughout the organization. Organizations can also work with us to create an Electronic House Style to make sure every document keeps to your house-style rules and conventions.




Find out how StyleWriter can help you with: Technical Reports, Journalist Writing, Advertising Copy, Minutes of Meetings, Writing Memos, Writing Policies and Procedures, Legal Documents, Essays and Research Papers, Business Letters
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