Most of us have experienced the frustration of having to read complex and wordy emails or reports at work. Yet when it comes to your turn to write, do you feel reluctant to use plain English?
Many people feel they need to complicate their writing at work, particularly when writing to someone more senior in the organisation. Understanding some of the common myths around plain English writing may help explain why this is so.
Myth #1. Plain English writing is ‘dumbing down’. Plain English writing is about making your writing easier to read. It’s not about patronising your reader or talking down to them. Rather, it’s about being respectful of your reader’s time and making your message easy to understand on first reading. Plain English writing is about using straightforward sentence structures and presenting your ideas in a logical and coherent sequence.
Myth #2. Senior management won’t take me seriously. People often mistakenly believe that the bigger the words and the more complex the writing, the more impressed the reader will be. Long-winded sentences, overly formal words, and unnecessarily wordy phrases actually won’t make you appear smarter; they will reduce readability enormously and give your writing a bureaucratic tone. Unnecessary complexity and wordiness is simply noise that leaves the reader confused, bewildered and uncertain of your message. It’s the content of your document that will impress your reader, not the long words and complex sentence structures.
Myth #3. My subject matter is very technical. If you’re writing a technical report for an audience in your field, it’s fine to use technical terms. When writing about complex technical issues, you can still keep your sentence structure concise. If there are technical words your reader may not understand, consider whether you really need to include the term. If you’re an IT professional, for example, terms like 'cache' or ‘user interface accessibility’ might be common usage for you, but may make a general audience glaze over. If you believe a technical term is particularly useful, and there is no suitable plain English alternative, you may choose to educate your reader by defining the term the first time you use it and then use the technical term from then on.
Regardless of the topic, if you complicate your writing, there’s a strong chance your reader will stop reading. Your report or business case proposal will be shelved and your emails will be unanswered. You may even lose professional credibility because no one understands what you write or they think you are big noting yourself (in a bad way).
On the other hand, if you write clearly and concisely using terminology your reader will understand (plain English), your ideas will shine. People will take notice of what you have to say and you’ll achieve better results both personally and for your organisation as a whole.