I’ve always enjoyed writing. I didn’t realise how much until I tried and failed to do an architecture degree. I’d like to say it sparked a love of structure (of stories), materials (tone, grammar), and in balancing care with flair. But that’s too neat to be true.
Architecture school made me miss words.
So I quit, and went to Japan to teach English. This sowed the seeds of my interest in plain language. I constantly questioned my words. Am I trying to sound smart, or be clear? Any room for misinterpretation? Why does English do z but not y?
Japan made me want to keep working with words.
Next I went to journalism school. After three years as a reporter on a daily newspaper in Wellington, I moved to London and the BBC News website. Two key questions in journalism — who most needs to understand this, and what’s my word limit? — remain important now I’m a content designer and flag-waver for plain English. Ah, the discipline of space constraints…
“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out.” — Voltaire
My first chief reporter gave me the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever had: read it out loud to yourself. If you stumble over words, gasp for breath halfway through a sentence, or stop and go “huh?”, it’s time for a rewrite.
And now here I am at Empathy. I love decoding jargon and legalese to translate it into plain English that sings. I could write or sub all the words heading out the door… if I cloned myself and did no other work. But then I would turn into the stereotype of a grumpy newspaper sub, casting side-eyes at typos and misplaced punctuation all day, every day.
Nor is this the Empathy way. We don’t work in silos. We do share an appetite for upskilling. So I encourage plain English in my writing team, and in the wider team of designers, researchers, and operations staff, by doing and by teaching. This often requires a shift in mindset. Big words — and long sentences — aren’t clever. It takes more brain power, and more time, to write short and write smart. But your readers will thank you.
“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” — Mark Twain
Lawyers, for example, are notorious for using complex words and convoluted phrases. But even there, the tide is turning. New Zealand’s Solicitor-General Una Jagose encourages lawyers to use simple words, “even if you know big, complicated ones”.
“Like chicken stock, legal writing is vastly improved by putting all the elements in at first and then reducing and reducing it,” she told 2016’s Clarity conference about plain language in law, government and business.
Plain English — or how not to write like an undergraduate trying to impress a lecturer
Here are a few extracts from Empathy’s style guide. To save this document from languishing on a digital shelf, I regularly email snippets to my fellow Empathytes. This helps to hone wordsmithery and tackle common grammar clangers across the studio.
You might think long words and jargon make you sound smart, but is it really smart to share information no one in the intended audience can connect with? Plain English is a great way to wear your smarts lightly — and to bring everyone along for the ride.
Be knowledgable, but don’t get bogged down in jargon.
Beware overly long sentences. These make you sound verbose, not clever.
Related: Full-stops are the best punctuation mark.
Words to avoid, paired with plain English alternatives
Watch these words transform through the magic of plain language.
- following on becomes after
- in order to becomes to
- enquire/request becomes ask
- assist becomes help
- require becomes need
- utilise/utilize becomes use
- therein becomes… seriously? Delete and rewrite your sentence.
Imagine an old-school tailor. The type who suits and boots James Bond. Use punctuation the same way this tailor uses buttons, zippers and cufflinks — the fastenings holding the fabric in place and giving it shape.
Full-stops are like buttons, to be used plentifully and placed thoughtfully to keep your writing as sharp as 007 in full Saville Row regalia. Think of all those buttons on jacket front and sleeves, shirt front, trouser waistband… Bond even has a buttoned-down heart.
Other punctuation marks are like zippers, buckles or cufflinks — best used sparingly.
Do you have an itchy ‘that’ finger? (not a euphemism)
Come on. Admit it. Do you pad your sentences with this word? Just stop. THAT is largely unnecessary in most of the sentences it pitches up in.
Here’s an example of how I’d write the sentence above if I had an itchy THAT finger.
That is a word that is largely unnecessary in most of the sentences that it pitches up in.
If you catch yourself typing this word, delete it. Read the sentence out loud. Only pop it back if your thatless sentence makes no sense. Here’s a challenge for THATdicts: strip out this word at least 80% of the time. You’ll find you #writemorebetter.
I’d love to know your own efforts to #writemorebetter — please use this hashtag to share on Twitter or LinkedIn.