How to Write

(This piece is the second (and final) in a two-part series on writing effectively.)

We have already established that failing to write in plain English is hurting our ability to communicate. If we don’t use plain English in our everyday use of language, we run the risk of losing friends, customers, and even money.

Here are some of the benefits of writing in plain English:

  • Clear writing is a result of clear thinking. It forces you to consider the idea and creatively find the simplest way to convey it. Yes, it takes more time, but it also helps you distill the idea to its very essence in your own mind.

  • Clear writing takes less time to read. This ensures that we get to our point quickly, easily, and in a friendlier way. It helps the reader save precious time and attention, which in turn helps bring about better, faster decisions to move things forward and to get more people involved. No one has the time or patience to go through business jargon, legalese, or small print. We want to be able to read and absorb information quickly, easily, and with one reading.

  • How we talk and write is how we define ourselves. When we write the way we talk, it makes our writing unique. We have a voice and we use it to communicate. It appeals powerfully to the emotional side (not just the logical side) of those we work with. That’s what we want. That can only happen when we use simple language to communicate our ideas. You’ll see this being true especially in large organizations where leaders acquiesce to letting others do the writing for them. The very thing that defines them as leaders (their voice) is what they’ve chosen to delegate to other people in their organization.

  • Using plain English is not just about good intentions, it’s a business necessity. Clear writing from knowledge workers, including lawyers and finance geeks among others, doesn’t just make good sense; it can mean all the difference to the bottom line as well.

Effective communication is about clarity, not hiding behind corporate-speak and using fancy words. Almost anything can be made accessible with plain English. Even the most complicated policies and decisions can be explained in a clear and simple way. Above all, good writing makes every reader think it’s about them.

William Strunk, Jr. on writing concisely:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

Here are some tips for writing in plain English:

  • Write with the reader in mind. Keep it simple, concise, and clear. They should be able to understand without knowing any jargon or technical terms. Yes, it’s possible. If you’re having trouble de-jargonizing or you find yourself going back to your old ways, you need to think about it more and work hard to translate jargon into plain English; you must be able to write it in your own words, not in corporate-speak.

  • Think about who you’re going to be writing for. Who is going to be reading your writing? Will they be able to understand it (remember, they may be unfamiliar with jargon)? Imagine yourself talking to your reader.

  • Create an outline to capture (and organize) your thoughts; it doesn’t have to be perfect at the outset. At the very least, it should be something to get you started, which can be especially difficult.

  • Keep your sentences short (≤20 words), and try to keep it to one idea per sentence.

  • Using proper punctuation is paramount to any sentence structure, as the meaning can be completely altered with improper punctuation.

  • Write in active voice (subject > verb > object), and avoid passive voice. The use of “I”, “You”, and “We” in sentences makes it more personal to your reader.

  • Avoid using “concept nouns”, which expresses a concept commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did. These nouns embody a vague concept and lack any working verbs. There is no subject, which means the reader will have a hard time thinking or visualizing someone performing a task. For instance, instead of writing, “The common reaction is incredulous laughter”, write, “Most people just laugh with disbelief”. Here, the missing subject in the first sentence was “most people”.

  • Avoid use of nominalizations, a type of abstract noun that makes it difficult (and boring) to deal with in your writing. These are formed when you turn a verb into a noun in order to make a point. Doing this often is unhelpful. For instance, instead of writing, “we had a discussion about the report”, write, “we discussed the report”.

  • Use hierarchies, such as headings, sub-headings, and bullets. This helps the reader navigate your writing faster.

  • Make use of lists to split up information. This makes it easy for the reader to absorb information quickly.

  • Say no to metadiscourse, avoid redundancy, and pretentious words.

Remember, there is almost always an easier, better, simpler (and effective) way to say (and write) things. When in doubt, come back to the four principles of writing effectively: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity.

Here are some examples of using simple language:

  • Tim Cook, Apple CEO, used plain English and a clear voice to write internal memos and open letters.
  • Apple Customer Service is another great example where the customer reps talk to you in plain English. In fact, speaking in plain English is a hallmark of great customer service. Hover comes to mind as well.
  • Banks like Simple use plain language to make it easy for you to save and spend money using their service.
  • President Obama uses plain English for his speeches, which is an example of a great orator.

Writing effectively is an essential part of our work and lives. It is imperative that we communicate clearly with each other.

Ultimately, it boils down to removing everything that isn’t necessary and using the clearest, best words to convey a point. It takes a lot of work to distill a thought down to the essential idea, but that’s how you get clear communication without jargon.

Really, we all encounter terrible, difficult-to-understand communication every day. Distilling an idea takes work, and using big, complicated words and sentence structures is just smoke and mirrors.

If we all wrote in plain English, how much easier and efficient life would be. We can all use writing in plain English as a fundamental tool toward creating the world we want. It can save us precious time, attention, money, and even lives.

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