UPDATED AUGUST 8, 2023
Keeping it simple
“No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.”
~ Tim Radford
This is my copywriting mantra. If I’m ever hesitating over a piece of copy because I think it sounds too simple, I remember these words.
In most cases, business copy doesn’t have to sound academic or sophisticated. But it does have to be clear and easy to understand if you want it to sell.
And this is where plain English can help you.
What is plain English?
Plain English is a way of writing that’s clear, simple, unambiguous and easy to read.
It conveys your message in a way that’s quick to digest and easy to understand.
Why should I use plain English?
When you use plain English:
Your message will be clear and easy to understand
When you write in plain English everything will be crystal clear, with no ambiguity and no room for misunderstanding.
Your copy will be more efficient
Plain English is quick to read and can usually be digested and understood on the first attempt. This will save your audience time and effort — and they’ll always thank you for that!
You’ll avoid misunderstandings
Keeping your message clear and simple will reduce the risk of misunderstandings and mistakes.
Your message will be accessible to a wider audience
Using plain English will make your message more inclusive to people from different backgrounds and with more varied language skills. This could open up new audiences and opportunities for your business.
You’ll keep your audience engaged
When your audience can understand your message, it’s easier to keep them interested and engaged. And when they’re interested in what you have to say, they’ll be more likely to read more of it.
Your copy will do the explaining
When your copy is doing its job, you’ll spend less time answering questions and explaining things. This means you’ll have more time for serving your customers and closing new sales.
How to write in plain English
Now you understand the benefits of writing in plain English, here are some simple rules to help you.
10 Simple rules for writing in plain English
1. Use simple words
Wherever you can, choose simple, effective words that are commonly understood.
If you have to use more official terminology or abbreviations, make sure you explain them in plain English.
2. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short
Experts recommend a maximum of 23 words per sentence.
You should also aim to vary the length of each sentence to add some variety and keep your readers engaged.
Aim for paragraphs of four lines and under and separate each paragraph with a line space.
3. Simplify your sentences and paragraphs
Make just one or two points in each sentence. This will keep your sentences concise, clear and focused.
Use each paragraph to cover one single idea. This will keep your paragraphs short and manageable.
4. Think about what you’re saying rather than how it sounds
When we get hung up on wanting our writing to sound a certain way, we can forget about making it clear. So focus on the content of your words rather than the tone.
5. Use active voice rather than passive voice
Active voice is generally clearer, more direct and more engaging than passive voice.
Active sentences mention the do-er first, followed by the thing they’re doing.
Active voice: You will choose the colour and style.
Passive voice: The colour and style will be chosen by you.
Active voice: You can find all the information on our website.
Passive voice: The information can be found on our website.
For a more complete explanation and more examples, read my full article:
6. Simplify anything that might be too complex
If you need to communicate something complex, break it down into manageable chunks.
Use examples and relatable analogies to explain it in a way most people will be able to understand.
Use a visual with the text, or in place of the text, if it will communicate your message more simply and effectively.
7. Use an informal, conversational tone
An informal, conversational tone will be easier for your audience to digest and understand.
To achieve this, imagine you’re speaking your message to someone in a verbal conversation.
Think about the words you would use and how you would phrase them.
And if it doesn’t sound like something you’d say, don’t write it.
8. Be specific
The best way to avoid ambiguity, mixed messages and misunderstandings is to be specific.
Say exactly what you mean — and mean exactly what you say — with no room for questions or doubt.
9. Use formatting to break up long content
Some clever formatting will make your content easier to read and digest.
It’s particularly helpful if you’re publishing the content online, because people are more likely to skim-read on a screen.
- Use a relevant heading to introduce each section
- Further divide the content with subheadings
- Insert relevant visuals to add interest
- Use bullet points for lists with 3 or more items.
10. Give direct and explicit instructions
If you want your reader to do something, be clear and say it directly.
Direct: Shop now
Indirect: Visit our online shop
Direct: Sign up to our mailing list and get 20% off your first order
Indirect: Join our online community for access to exclusive offers
Need some help to simplify your communications?
Allow me to introduce myself!
I’m Jenny Lucas, a freelance copywriter and content writer based in Leicester, UK.
I specialise in writing plain English copy with personality and punch!
And I’m a whizz at translating complex issues, propositions and ideas into clear, simple language that informs, explains and sells.
If you’re looking to widen your market, or improve the simplicity of your communications and you’d like some help, why not get in touch?
You can find out more about me and what I can do for you by visiting my website.