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Five plain English tips for writing better everything

Robert Mills • 5 minutes

This video is the twenty-third in our Content Strategy Advent Calendar series.

Here, Iain Broome shares some advice about plain English. It’s not about dumbing down, it’s about writing and speaking in the clearest way possible. Naturally, Iain delivers the tips in a clear way and even uses the word ‘crikey’.

Day 23 #ContentStrategyAdvent: 5 plain English tips for writing better everything, by @iainbroome

Video transcript

Hello, my name’s Iain Broome and I’m a writer, editor and all-round content person from Sheffield in the UK. Today I want to talk to you about plain English. Plain English isn’t about dumbing down, it’s not about removing all of your creative juices from your body in any way at all. It’s actually about speaking to an audience in the clearest way possible.

Doing that on the web is particularly useful because we usually want people to do something, we want them to take action, to go from one place to another. And so if we can speak to them in an extremely concise, clear way, that’s going to help every time.

So these five tips that I have might seem pretty obvious if you work on the web every day, and especially if you’re a content person. But you probably work with clients who don’t have those kind of skills or kind of knowledge, and perhaps don’t really care. They might not have any interest in these types of things, but it might be your job to try and make them interested and make them write better.

Number one is use every day words. Like I say, this might seem extremely obvious but the reality is, there is so much copy all over the place where people are using words that they really don’t need to use. How about the word acquire. Could we have just got whatever it is that we’ve acquired? Yes we could.

What about, undertaking. Undertaking to do something. You’re just doing it, that’s all you’re doing. So there are lots of examples of this and every day words are, they’re every day for a reason, they’re the words that we use. So every time you feel like it would be super exciting to use an extremely long word, think about your audience and your readers and whether it would be a much simpler, better idea to use a word that they actually, definitely, will understand.

Next is write short sentences. A good guideline is 15 to 20 words and perhaps the most important thing though is to try and focus on one idea per sentence. If you find yourself trying to squeeze an awful lot of information into a sentence, the chances are that you will have tried to talk about more than one thing at one time. So separate them up, one idea per sentence, 15 to 20 words and you can’t really go wrong.

Number three is to write for your reader. The GatherContent blog is for content strategists and I very often read the blog of course, and I have been watching these videos, and it’s quite common for content strategy folks to say don’t mention content strategy because no one understands it. But of course, if you’re doing a video for the GatherContent advent calendar, which isn’t easy to say, then it’s probably alright to say content strategy or to refer to someone as a content strategist. The point is, think about the reader, think about the audience. Plain english is all about reaching the most people that you can, but you have to know who those people are. So do your research, maybe create personas if you have the budget and the time, and always think about that reader and that audience whenever you’re writing anything.

Number four is give instructions. Absolutely. Be bold. Be brave and tell people what to do. I think it’s ok to be bossy. I think this is especially the case on the web where we’ve got so used to buttons everywhere that tell us to buy it, buy it now, or to, I don’t know, read more. Click here? No, don’t say click here, that’s a terrible thing to do. That would be an inaccessible link.

As I said before, on the web we really want to get people to do something, to take action. Just tell them straight away, go there, do that, get stuck in. That type of thing.

Finally number five. This is an action you can take. It’s to create a standard … It’s to create a standard words document. This is something I’ve done a number of times. It’s extremely useful, especially if you work in teams or if you’re working with a client on a site or a piece of, lots of copy. A standard words document contains all of the words, phrases and different names of things that you have to include in a project or for a specific client. All of their lingo. If you put all of those things in one place, it means that you and your team or you and your client can refer to them, so you always agree on the correct way of saying and writing things.

Your standard words document is a living, breathing thing so make sure you update it on a regular basis. You can also use it for common mis-spellings, or confusion over which word to use in the specific right place. For example, may I compliment you on those trousers, because by crikey, they complement your wonderful blouse.

And finally number six. I’ve decided to do a bonus one because why not, It’s Christmas. This is a very specific one but the term, or the phrase, or the way of saying it, in order to. I hate that so much. I’ve created this video in order to talk about plain english. It’s not in order to. I’ve just done it, to. To. That’s all you need to say. Never say in order to. In fact, think of every example where you’ve used in order to or you know someone who’s used in order to, and just replace it with to. Just get rid of in order. That’s the best way of doing it, it’s quicker. And you’ll see, it’s a waste of letters and energy and I thinkI need to stop there.

You’ve been looking at the crow the entire time haven’t you? The Christmas crow.

About Iain

Very Meta is the freelance home of Iain Broome, a writer, editor and content producer with bags of experience.
He develops content strategies, turns complicated ideas into plain English and writes thoughtful copy for print and screen. That’s the basics. He does other stuff too. Like develop and run content workshops, create educational videos and record voiceovers in various funny accents.
After a decade working in top-notch agencies, Iain has created content for the likes of the NHS, Morrisons, the Eden Project, various government departments and, in what was a curious turn of events, international bestselling author, Wilbur Smith.
You can say hello to Iain on Twitter or find him on LinkedIn to learn more about his content and consultancy services at Very Meta.

Day 23 #ContentStrategyAdvent: 5 plain English tips for writing better everything, by @iainbroome

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