Plain language is writing that everyone can understand. You are only able to write this way if you understand exactly what it is that you want to say. Don’t think you are ‘dumbing it down’. You are communicating in a clear, simple manner.
If you read last week’s post, you’ll remember I wrote that we have 11 official languages in South Africa. This makes our use of plain language even more important.
What are the advantages of plain language:
There is no ambiguity.
It is faster to read.
It is faster to write.
Simplify your word choice.
Shorten your sentences.
Use the active voice.
How to use readability statistics
Microsoft Word has a free tool that measures the readability of your document. There are many free online tools that you can use as well. [Read Why You Should Care About Readability Statistics] The Microsoft tool calculates the number of characters per word, the numbers of
words per sentence as well as the number of sentences per paragraph. At the end you will be given a passivity percentage, a grade level, and a readability percentage. Ideally you want your grade to be around 7, your readability to be above 70% and your passive voice below 10%.
How do you achieve this reading?
Word choice: If you use simple words, there will be no confusion about the meaning of the word. Strive for, on average, 4 characters per word. Remember you will use many short words such as ‘is’ and ‘a’ as well as many 6 or 8 character words to achieve this average. However, you should avoid very long words.
Sentence length: If you keep your sentences short you will find it easier to remain in the active voice. You will be able to avoid tense and punctuation mistakes. Try to use sentences that have an average of 9-13 words. Remember, it’s an average. You will use five word sentences, and you will use twenty word sentences, but when you start writing 34 or 45 word sentences you should cut them.
Paragraph length: Simple words and short sentences will help you to keep your paragraphs short. Short paragraphs help to create white space. If you keep your paragraphs between 3-5 lines or sentences, you will be able to place the emphasis on the correct information. Your first sentence should be the most the important sentence and you should keep it down to one thought or point per paragraph.
Plan your messages
By planning your messages, you will be able focus your communication. If your messages are succinct and clear you will be an effective
communicator. Consider your reader. Ask this question before you start writing: What do you want the reader to do after reading your message? This will help you decide what information to include.
We’ll talk about reader habits and the importance of white space next week.
If you are interested in learning how to improve your business writing skills, join us for The Plain Language Programme.
by Mia Botha
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