As creators, we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our content to better serve our audience because we understand the cost of inefficient content. Often, we think the topic is what provides value, but the topic is only part of the picture. The other part is how we write the content. There’s a persistent misconception that you should use complicated, descriptive language to write well. The opposite is actually true. Over the past couple of decades, some companies have been adopting plain English as a way to communicate with their audience more effectively. But not everyone is aware of the benefits plain English offers, and some writers have yet to adopt it in their content creation process. This article lays out the benefits of using plain English and some of the ways you can incorporate it into your content.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 defines plain language (another term for plain English) as follows:
Writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.
The aim of plain English is to help readers understand the writing with little effort. It aims to be as inclusive as possible.
For content teams, plain English has five main benefits:
We’ve spoken before about how website copy is essential in building trust and credibility within your audience, but we’d like to add that the language we use on websites is also important. Plain English is excellent for building trust and credibility because its proponents advocate for avoiding jargon. Jargon obscures clarity, and many believe that people who use jargon are attempting to hide the truth behind the jargon. And the opposite is true, too. When you use language that the majority of people will understand, they won’t believe you’re trying to manipulate them. This perception leads to their trust.
In his blog post, Why I Hate Jargon, Graham Mann notes that jargon obscures clarity. When we don’t understand something, we feel inferior, and when we feel inferior, we are less likely to engage with the content. But it’s more than that. By using more accessible language, you allow more people, regardless of their abilities, to engage with that content. Writing customer-centric content is vital to standing out in the overcrowded web scene.
A little-known benefit of plain English is that it can boost your SEO. In essence, SEO focuses on helping your website and web content rank higher in search engine results. Part of this improved ranking comes from increased website views and engagement with the content (helped by making the content more accessible), but keywords are also incredibly important. Keywords are short phrases that signal what the content is about. Users type these phrases into search engines when looking for content and don’t generally use complicated language when Googling; they use simple language. So, employing the same simple language as users will help them discover your content.
Have you ever been writing and realized that you’re not sure whether the word you want to use actually fits what you’re trying to say? Usually, this situation arises because you’re trying to use a word that’s not in your everyday vocabulary. And there’s probably a reason it’s not. Writing in plain English allows you to use more common words that you and your audience will be more familiar with. This kind of writing will be much easier and faster for you to draft. Content production can be a difficult and time-consuming process, so anything you can do to make it easier will be beneficial to you and your team.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell sets out six rules for writing clearly:
Let’s take a closer look at each rule.
Although Orwell suggests avoiding commonly used metaphors, similes, and figures of speech, we would advise you to avoid all metaphors, similes, and figures of speech when you’re writing in plain English. Some people with neurodivergence struggle to understand these figures of speech; these individuals may take things more literally than you intended. To limit confusion, avoid using figures of speech, regardless of how common they are.
We’ve outlined above that the main principle of plain English is using language that most people will understand, but we wanted to provide you with some examples of this:
Request should become ask. Acquire should become get or buy.
The Plain English Campaign has a guide that provides alternative words to the “gobbledygook” that “litter[s] official writing.”
This is perhaps the second-most important advice you’ll receive about plain English. The Oxford Guide to Plain English recommends limiting sentences to 15–20 words. Naturally, you don’t want all your sentences to be the same length because varied sentence length is still preferred, but if you find that all your sentences are longer than 20 words, you may want to break them up into more manageable chunks so people don’t get bored with or lost in the text.
This is good advice for any type of writing. Using the active voice makes your writing clearer and more trustworthy (because it includes the actor in the sentence). However, sometimes the passive voice is necessary because the actor is unknown or you’re writing something more scientific (where the passive voice is more common). So, we recommend using the active voice as much as possible, using the passive voice only when there’s no other way to say what you’re trying to say.
Sometimes when we’re writing, we find we need to use a foreign phrase, a scientific term, or jargon to express our thoughts. As a general rule, try to replace these words with an English equivalent. For example, you can replace et cetera with for example. But doing this isn’t always possible, depending on what type of content you’re creating. When you can’t replace a term, find a way to explain (in simple English) what it means.
While the above rules are a great guide for writing in plain English, they will not apply in all situations. Plain English prioritizes ease of communication, so if any of these rules could cause confusion or difficulty, break them. Your job is to communicate a message, and you should choose the best language for doing this.
Plain English is a way to write content that the majority of people can understand and engage with. Content teams who use plain English enjoy many benefits, including building trust, allowing more people to engage with the content, boosting your SEO, and making content easier to write. Some ways in which you, as a content creator, can implement plain English are avoiding figures of speech, using simple language, keeping sentences short, using the active voice, using English equivalents, and breaking these rules if they could cause confusion. Ultimately, plain English prioritizes clarity and readability such that more people can participate in your content.
Content creation can be stressful, and you may be worried that you’re not being clear. That’s where an editor or proofreader can help. Our team of experts can edit your work to ensure clarity, flow, and tone. When you’re ready to see what Proofed can do for you, you can schedule a call.
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