Despite the bad press they get, public servants, on the whole, can actually write. It’s just that from the moment we start drafting briefing notes, submissions or correspondence, we learn and absorb that complex officialese style. As a result, we are more inclined to “undertake a review in relation to policy objectives” than simply “review a policy”.
Now agencies are waking up to the benefits of plain English, and they are mandating clear, crisp, meaningful and expressive communication. Suddenly staff are expected to radically revise what used to be the norm.
But where do you start? And what exactly are the essentials elements of plain English?
Revisit your style guide
A good place to begin is your organisation’s style guide. Did you know you had one?
Most agency style guides cover plain English expression as well as the traditional content of spelling, capitals, abbreviations or punctuation. If your guide is any good, it will also include substantive plain English principles for structuring text and using document design.
Spend some time reviewing your writing against the standards your guide espouses. And I mean genuinely reviewing your text. Go beyond the high-level assertions about “writing for your reader”, “using a logical structure” or “communicating clearly”, as you can easily convince yourself you already do all of those things.
Instead, look for elements you can measure. For example, how much key information is in your documents, how much passive voice do you use, and how does your text fare against a readability formula? If your guide doesn’t help you answer those questions, it is time for some training in plain English.
Attend some training
When was the last time you had any writing training? More than five years ago? More than 10? If that’s the case, you have some catching up to do.
In the last decade, disciplines such as plain language, cognitive science and user-centred design have greatly extended our understanding of what makes communication effective in a professional context. The move to screen-based and mobile communication is accelerating this change — as recent footage of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reading change-of-government briefs on his iPad clearly showed.
For example, the way we structure information will fundamentally change in an onscreen world. No longer can we assume readers will patiently journey through a long narrative, which gradually unfolds its research, unpacks some findings and only then unveils its conclusions. Increasingly, documents need to get straight to the point and only then move into the detail.
Your organisation’s templates may already reflect this approach. New South Wales agencies, for example, have been adopting the Plain English Foundation’s model briefing note template. This foregrounds the core message and structures content around the reasoning that supports a recommendation.
Update your approach
But there is much to update even if you are using a more traditional template. Here are three handy tips.
First, take a typical short document you have written, and summarise its core message in three sentences. How quickly does it convey that message? Will your readers have to work through the whole document before they extract the essence?
The research tells us that if we get to the point early in a document, our readers are far more likely to read the detail and comprehend much more as they do. When you bury the core message, they quickly start to skim and your material will lose its impact.
Second, look at the design of your document. Is it text heavy, or is there plenty of white space, with headings and lists that break up the text and help readers navigate? And if readers only scanned the headings, how much content would they glean?
With the rise of the internet, readers will more likely scan a whole page before committing to reading it. This means using more headings than in a paper environment, and making them more information-rich to entice readers into the text.
Third, do a quick health check of your sentence length. Calculate the average number of words per sentence in a page of text. This should fall between 15 to 20 words, with individual sentences generally no longer than 30 words.
If your average sentence length is more than 20 words — and certainly if it is over 25 — then you are asking your readers to invest more effort than they need to. Break up some sentences. Cognitive science shows there are limits to the processing capacity of our short-term memory, and short (but not too short) chunks of text are easier to comprehend.
Brush up on the essentials
If you find that any or all of these tips improve your writing, there are at least another dozen evidence-based principles that will give you an edge for writing at work.
It’s time to brush up on your plain English essentials.