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We like to keep things simple and straightforward. You want your important messages to be as clear as possible: we're here to help. That's really all there is to it.
If you use plain English you can save thousands of pounds every year. If you don't, you'll waste time, lose customers and damage your image. It couldn't be simpler.
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© The Word Centre
We've tried to keep our site as uncluttered as possible. But we know that people are curious about what we do and often want to know more about plain English. So we've popped some interesting stuff down here out of sight, 'below the fold' as the marketing people call it. You'll find some other articles/thoughts if you scroll down our editing service page, our training services page and our accreditation page.
Why you should use plain English
If you use plain English you will do more business and improve your image:
- People will understand the benefits of what you are offering or selling. They will see what makes you different from, or better than, your competitors.
- You will see your sales or 'take-up' rates increase.
- People will trust you because they can see you have nothing to hide.
- You will project a professional and modern image.
You will also become more efficient and cut some of your costs:
- Your communications will 'work' first time around – you won't waste time by having to contact people more than once.
- Your staff will have more time to do productive work, rather than having to deal with queries or complaints about the communications you've sent to people.
- Your customers will fill your forms in fully and correctly, and will send them back to you more quickly.
- You will save money on your printing and paper storage costs, because most organisations duplicate messages in a desperate attempt to get their point across.
- Your internal documents will be more effective. For example, your reports will be understood and acted upon rather than being a source of debate and confusion.
Or to put it another way, organisations that use plain English improve their customer relations, and save time and money.
Here are just a few examples
British Telecom (BT)
When BT produced a clearer bill in plain English it received around 25% fewer enquiries each quarter. Customers also paid their bills more promptly, improving cash flow and reducing the cost of collecting overdue bills. Before the change, BT had been receiving a million calls a year.
When US computer manufacturer Allen-Bradley produced a new computer manual in plain English, calls to the company's support centre fell dramatically from more than 50 a day to only two or three a month.
UK Royal Mail
Before Royal Mail redesigned its redirection of mail form it had an 87% error rate when customers filled it in. The company was spending over £10,000 a week to deal with complaints and reprocess the incorrect forms. The new form reduced the error rate dramatically, so that Royal Mail saved £500,000 in the next nine months.
UK Central Government forms
In one of the earliest plain English initiatives the UK Government began a major review of its forms in 1983. By 1985 it had scrapped 15,700 forms, improved 21,300 and reviewed another 46,900. At the end of the initiative the Government estimated that it had saved about £9 million in printing and storage costs alone.
Of course, printing and storage costs are only the tip of the iceberg if your forms are inefficient. Coopers and Lybrand performed one study for the Department of Health and Social Security, and concluded that before the improvements the cost of errors on its forms was around £675 million a year.
*source: 'Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please' – Joseph Kimble, The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, vol 6.
What about your organisation?
It's hard to say how much you could save by using plain English, but all your communications are important to your organisation. Some are the oil that keeps the business machine lubricated. Even more important are the ones that go to customers, prospective customers and the world at large. You are judged by these, and bad writing loses customers.
If you are selling the benefits of your service or product, what's the point if readers are going to switch off after the first sentence?
Governments and businesses have saved hundreds of millions of pounds, and improved their customer relations, by applying plain English techniques to their leaflets, letters and forms. If you aren't doing so already, it's time to put your own documents into plain English.
Plain English is for everyone
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that plain English is only important to people with poor literacy skills or with poor academic abilities. Plain English isn't 'dumbed-down' English and can be used for any kind of business writing, aimed at any audience.
Here are some good reasons to use plain English, whoever you're writing for:
- even highly intelligent people struggle to understand what to them is 'jargon' and will quickly give up reading
- senior managers are busy and don't have the time to read something twice just because the writing style is complex
- if we have problems understanding something we tend to blame the writer and think they must have something to hide
- if a word or an expression is unfamiliar readers tend to guess at what it means – rather than asking – and they will often guess incorrectly. In other words, your reader may think they understand, but they don't
- complicated topics can still be expressed in straightforward language – you don't need complex language just because of the subject matter
- plain English still has authority and 'clout' – and people are much more likely to follow plain English instructions and guidance willingly and successfully
- the ability to write in plain English means using a valuable set of techniques and skills that will make any writer more effective, and make writing much easier for them. People with this ability tend to stand out from the crowd in any organisation.
What do we mean by 'plain English'?
There's no single, universally accepted definition of what plain English is, but the one we like is this:
'A message is in plain English if it gets its meaning across clearly and concisely to its intended audience, and creates the impression the writer was intending to create.'
Of course, this is just a definition and so is more about theory than practice. In more practical terms, if you're checking a piece of writing, ask yourself:
- is the language appropriate for the intended readers, and as clear as it can be?
- does the written style create the right impression? How would I feel if I was the reader?
- is the design and layout as clear as possible?
- is it easy for the reader to find their way around the document, be it a website or printed document?
To help you write in plain English, follow the tips below.
Put yourself in your reader's shoes and use:
- everyday words wherever possible, and explain any technical terms you have to use
- a glossary to explain terms that are used often, or where the explanation would take up too much room in the main text
- 'you' and 'we' instead of 'the applicant', 'the borrower', 'the bank', 'the company' and so on
- short sentences. Stick to one or two ideas in your sentences most of the time, and aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words throughout the document
- active verbs, rather than passive verbs. In other words, write 'We will pay this into your account when we get your letter telling us.....' rather than 'Payment will be made when your letter is received.....'
- plenty of 'signposts' to help your reader find what they are looking for. These include contents lists, headings and sub-headings, and lists of key features (like this one)
- a line length of between 45 and 60 characters, depending on the type size
- plenty of 'white space' on the page, to avoid clutter and make the page easy to read
- a type face that your readers can read easily, bearing in mind their age and likely reading ability.
© The Word Centre