A Wednesday night in July brought a smooth-voiced plain English advocate into our midst at the TechCommNZ Christchurch branch meeting. Ralph Brown, the managing director for a communications training organisation, is a regular judge for the WriteMark NZ Plain English awards. In his day-to-day work, he often deals with reluctant writers, but on this evening, he was preaching to the choir and shared some tips on how to write even more effectively.
Heads nodded in agreement as he offered his Golden Rule of Writing: Focus on the reader – though as he also noted, it’s easier said than done. Writers should remember that readers often have differing backgrounds, culture, literacy levels, and perspectives than we do. We also learned a new acronym for producing reader-focussed writing: SIDAP (Simple, Informal, Direct, Active, Personal). Ralph noted that the major weaknesses in unclear writing often focus on those last two items, when a text overuses the passive voice and hides the human element. In other words, don’t be afraid to reveal your actors and use you! (Okay, it might be a little more complicated than that.)
For those of you who have already embraced clarity, the WriteMark Plain English Awards for 2015 are now open for all categories, including websites, annual reports, legal documents, sentence transformation, best turnaround, and the People’s Choice award for Best Plain English Communication (or, conversely, you can dob in a bad document for Worst ‘Brainstrain’). Judges for past awards often focus on whether the writing is fit for its audience, so Ralph’s Golden Rule is a good one to keep in mind if you enter.
Hoping to up your plain English game? Below are some tips (these come from the Australian Style Manual, but we won’t hold that against them):
- Use familiar, everyday words.
- Be precise, avoiding unnecessary words.
- Vary sentence length (with an average 22-word length).
- Prefer the active rather than the passive.
- Engage the audience by using personal pronouns.
- Use verbs in preference to nouns derived from verbs.
- Break up dense strings of nouns and adjectives.
- Avoid euphemisms, clichés, and overused words or phrases.
- Prefer simple sentence structures.