Clear language means clear language – six tips for writing in plain English

The summer holidays are here.

You may be starting to think about which good book to read in a quiet corner on your relaxing days off work. Some form of escapism, perhaps?

Like most people, you’re worried about the direction we are going in due to the unknown outcomes of Brexit.

And the vague terms our politicians are using to explain what will happen (e.g. Brexit means Brexit).

Perhaps you’re also worried about the possibility that President Trump could turn out to be the volatile Mentos  to Kim Jong-un’s Diet Coke.

So maybe that book will be George’s Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four?

But Orwell wrote more than great fiction.

He also gave us some super advice about writing in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), which he wrote whilst working on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In the essay Orwell talks about how important it is to use clear and precise language:

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”

He goes on to say:

“…it [the defence of modern English] is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness.

“It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear…

“What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”

And as if he expected the early twenty-first century craze known as listicles, he wrote a list of six rules for writers to follow that make for a useful blog for PRs and copywriters.

1: Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Avoid using all clichés (overused phrases) that you have seen other writers use. You have read them elsewhere, many times – your reader has too. They have already lost their impact.

For example, AT THE END OF THE DAY is a horribly overused metaphor. It’s meaningless in most uses (think sports interviews), unless you herd cattle?

ULTIMATELY, I hope we writers start to use much clearer and more precise words instead. FINALLY!

The same goes for: blue sky thinking, think outside the box, melting pot, acid test, par for the course, ducks in a row, anything that mentions silos or getting out of them.

Do you want another horrible metaphor or shall I stop there? OK, the writing is on the wall for these worn metaphors, right?

You could in fact say, as TV character Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It once did, they are “more f*cked than Caligula’s watermelon”.

Don’t. Tucker beat you to it. Use your wonderful imagination to find your own.

For an example of everyday figures of speech to avoid, let’s take one that’s eating away at plain English standards like a flock of starving seagulls smashing a half-eaten pasty.

Your company is (drumroll)…delighted to win an award. Really? Of course!

Everyone is delighted with everything these days, it seems.

Be proud or pleased instead. Or even thrilled.  Or happier than Trump playing eighteen holes at his Mar-a-Lago golf club.

The possibilities are endless. I’ll be delighted, no, ecstatic, if you find some fantastic ones.

2: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

The art of communication is to express, not impress.

You’re not writing a TV version of Pride and Prejudice (unless you are literally writing a screenplay for a TV version of Pride and Prejudice – if so, this doesn’t apply to you).

Go for less of the long, yet eloquent, old-fashioned words (e.g. relinquish, disseminate, etc), please.

If it takes longer for your reader to work out what you want them to know and do, how does that help you to influence them?

Think of it this way.

Is your employer currently acquiring another firm? Or are they buying it?

Do you distribute press releases, or send them to the media?

Do you construct arguments in the boardroom, or build them?

Did your department receive an award, or did you win it?

When you see a long word in your writing, always try to find a shorter one.

That’s not to say you can’t ever use a beautiful big one, if it’s right to. But focus on using short words, not long ones.

Whilst we are on this topic it’s worth noting that you should try and use Anglo-Saxon words instead of their Latinate (derived from Latin) alternatives.

Anglo-Saxon words are normally shorter.

They are quicker and easier for your busy reader to get through.

See the list of examples below – there are hundreds of other lists you can use on websites like Wikipedia:

Relinquish = leave

Disseminate = send

Sequence = set

Response = answer

Request = ask

Purchase = buy

3: If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

We feel that we must change – we feel we must change.

In order to win – to win.

As soon as we arrive – when we arrive.

When you are editing your own writing, be ruthless. Your reader will be!

If she or he can’t quickly get what they want from your writing, they’ll soon stop reading.

By stripping out words that don’t need to be there, you’re helping your reader to find the meaning more easily.

Your reader will hopefully do more of what you want them to do, instead of moving swiftly on to their next piece of content.

4: Never use the passive where you can use the active.

There were some good tips, written by the author. Passive.

The author wrote some good tips. Active.

Put the person doing the thing before the thing.

In other words, when you use the active voice, the subject performs the action noted by the main verb.

When you use the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by something else.

Hemmingway is a great free app you can use to help you avoid using the passive voice in your writing.

5: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Are you truly au fait (familiar) with every foreign phrase that has become popular in the English language? No, me neither.

So don’t use them.

Not unless you know for sure your audience speaks English and said foreign language.

But if you can’t avoid using such a phrase, or you think it’s perfect for your audience, offer a clear explanation of what it means.

Many scientists and science writers have urged all writers to avoid using scientific jargon (e.g. paradigm shift, optimum, sustainability, etc).

To the point that some of them have banned a load of it. Word!

That’s not to say scientific words can’t be used, far from it.

Just use them carefully and write in plain English, rather than write with meaningless overused phrases.

6: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous [extremely brutal].

A man known for his harsh professional honesty, Orwell had a strong and stable dislike of vague, dishonest bullshit.

He thought vague language was politically dangerous because it hides the truth from the masses.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms [e.g. Brexit means Brexit], like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

You said it, George!

That makes me think of something else I read by another George, something about too much style over substance. Something about blank cheque’s bouncing.

But Orwell’s final point is that it’s actually OK if you break one of these rules, as long as you’ve thought properly about each word you write.

The clarity of your ideas is everything, he argues.

The most important thing you can do is to commit to writing in plain English and trust your instinct.

Even if something seems wrong to you (breaking a rule), remember that you can break the rules to do the right thing.

And that is: always be clear about exactly what you mean.

I hope we soon have some clearer details about what’s in and what’s out of the Brexit deal.

My hope reminds me that clear language still means clear language. Nothing has changed. NOTHING HAS CHANGED!

We should use clear language at all times. Will you?

DISCLAIMER: I may have broken one or more of these rules in this blog, hard as I’ve tried not to. If you spot one please Tweet me. I’ll be excited to hear from you.

Gavin B Harris MCIPR is a freelance PR Account Manager and copywriter. His experience covers B2B, sports (consumer), tech, construction and property, and diversity and inclusion. Gavin’s speciality is writing highly-engaging content – if you need freelance PR and writing support contact him via Twitter now.

Image courtesy of flickr user Cory Doctorow

Gavin B Harris MCIPR

Gavin B Harris MCIPR is a freelance PR Account Manager and copywriter. His experience covers B2B, sports (consumer), tech, construction and property, and diversity and inclusion. Gavin’s speciality is writing highly-engaging content – if you need freelance PR and writing support contact him via Twitter now.

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