Plain English – Clarity in Communication!

 – “One should use common words to say uncommon things” ― Arthur Schopenhauer

I have been an advocate for clarity in writing for more than 25 years. Scientists are not good at it (although we try!), lawyers don’t understand lawyers*, and the rest of us don’t read the fine print because it is often impenetrable, and well, too small!

There is little point in writing if your intended audience is not going to read or understand your message. What a waste of time and money! And, of course, there is the deliberate element. Tortuous phrasing to discourage close scrutiny. That app you just downloaded — what did the Terms and Conditions actually say? That contract you are planning to sign — did you really read and understand it? And, why should we pay a lawyer to interpret the language when the contract should have been readable in the first place?

The Plain English movement is international, and there is plenty of good advice available on the net. Here’s a nice summary of the principles from the UK’s Plain English Campaign:

  • Stop and think before you start writing. Make a note of the points you want to make in a logical order.

  • Prefer short words. Long words will not impress your customers or help your writing style.

  • Use everyday English whenever possible. Avoid jargon and legalistic words, and always explain any technical terms you have to use.

  • Keep your sentence length down to an average of 15 to 20 words. Try to stick to one main idea in a sentence.

  • Use active verbs as much as possible. Say ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done by us’.

  • Be concise.

  • Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice.

  • And always check that your writing is clear, helpful, human and polite.

Is it worth the effort? You be the judge. John Pease, speaking at the 2012 ACLA Conference, reported that:

  • 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.

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

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

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

John’s complete paper is here:

And I’ll leave the final word to the author and former US presidential speechwriter, James Humes:

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.”


* Lawyers (lovely people, difficult field!) – from a study published in the Clarity Journal, No 174, 2017. Published by Clarity, the international association promoting plain legal language

Published by

Richard Musgrove

I sculpt effective communication to enable growth for small to medium businesses. I de-fluff, cut to the essentials. Write the words you need to boost your business, run the campaign or get the funding. I'll also narrate the corporate videos and documentaries to get your message across, in-camera or voice-over. Here is an example: