Plain Language Wins

April 20, 2018
Image of retro typewriter to depict a simple and clean era

Good writing requires practice and patience.

Whether you’re crafting a tweet, drafting a press release or regular page copy, the goal is to use common plain language principles: write in a clear, concise, conversational manner.

Here are three common areas that may make our writing less impactful and less clear:

  • Unnecessary words
  • Writing in passive voice vs. active voice
  • Using proper spelling and grammar for context.


Avoid Unnecessary Words

Commonly used redundant expressions repeat ideas when fewer words clearly communicate the same meaning. Focus on the essential words that convey your intent.

“That” and ‘in order to” are two of the most overused words in the English language. Before using the word “that,” ask yourself if it’s necessary. Example: Is it necessary to identify words or phrases (that) you can do without?

“In order to,” we rarely need to use when “to” is all you need to get your point across.

Here are other common redundant phrases to look out for, with the essential word in parenthesis.

  • Direct confrontation (confrontation)
  • Future plans (plans)
  • Absolutely sure (sure)
  • Final outcome (outcome)
  • End result (result)
  • Unintended mistake (mistake)
  • Exact same (same)
  • Each individual (each)
  • Often times (often)
  • Small in size (small)
  • Until such time as (until)


Passive vs. Active Voice

Tense is about time references. Voice describes whether the subject performs or receives the action of the verb. So much of government writing is in the passive voice, giving documents a wordy, bureaucratic tone we should all work to change. We must use an active voice as much as possible. Passive sentences makes your writing less impactful and forces the reader to work a little harder.

Always keep in mind that the subject of a sentence acts on the verb, not the other way around. Writing in the active voice isn’t difficult if you follow the who-does-what sequence. This helps your readers visualize the action and follow the action to the conclusion.

Here are a few examples:

  • Passive voice: This article will be written by Jerry.
  • Active voice: Jerry will write this article.
  • Passive voice: There were four awards won by “The Shape of Water.”
  • Active voice: “The Shape of Water” won four awards.

Active voice more closely resembles spoken language. When we speak, we generally use the active voice without thinking.

You wouldn’t say:

  • Passive: My car (subject) was driven (action) to work by me.
  • Instead, you would say:
  • Active: I (subject) drove (action) my car (object) to work.

Passive voice can be acceptable at times. Passive voice works when:

  • the thing receiving an action is the important part of the sentence—especially in scientific and legal contexts
  • Example: Insulin was first discovered in 1921.
  • when the actor is unknown
  • Example: The house was built in 2015. [We don’t know who built the house.]
  • where the actor is distracting or irrelevant
  • Example: The president was sworn in during the ceremony.
  • You want to keep things vague
  • Example: Mistakes were made. [Common in bureaucratic writing!]


Using Proper Spelling and Grammar

Professional writing is free of spelling errors. Sometimes a spell-checking program only tells half the story. Always watch out for certain words that, while spelled correctly, are often used in the wrong context.

Ensure vs. Insure: If you want to make sure of something, you’re ensuring it. But if you want to buy a house or get your car on the road, you’ll need to insure it.

Than vs. Then: Than is always used in comparisons, such as "bigger than" or "older than." Then has a few different meanings, such as referring to a point in time (I’ll call you then) or referring to what comes next (Do this and then that).

Their/They’re and Your/You’re: Remember that when apostrophes are followed by the letters “re,” the apostrophe stands for the letter “a,” as in you are or they are. For example: You’re always using your favorite words.

Here are a few other commonly confused words that can derail even the most polished writer:

  • Its/It’s
  • Whose/Who’s
  • Affect/Effect
  • Accept/Except
  • Compliment/Complement
  • Farther/Further


Supercharge Your Writing

Plain language writing will ultimately save time. When we apply plain language principles our customers will not have to waste time “translating” wordy documents and they will understand what we’re saying quickly. When your customers can find what they need, understand what they find and use it to meet their needs, your writing wins.


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