While there was a time when many business documents were written in the third person to give them the impression of objectivity, this formal style was often passive and wordy. Today, it has given way to active, clear, concise writing, sometimes known as “plain English” (Bailey, 2008). Plain language style involves everyday words and expressions in a familiar group context and may include contractions.
No matter who your audience is, they will appreciate your ability to write using plain language. Here are five principles for writing in plain language:
Principle 1: Use Active Voice
To use active voice, make the noun that performs the action the subject of the sentence and pair it directly with an action verb.
Read these two sentences:
- Matt Damon left Harvard in the late 1980s to start his acting career.
- Matt Damon’s acting career was started in the late 1980s when he left Harvard.
In the first sentence, left is an action verb that is paired with the subject, Matt Damon. If you ask yourself, “Who or what left?” the answer is Matt Damon. Neither of the other two nouns in the sentence—Harvard and career—“left” anything.
Now look at the second sentence. The action verb is started. If you ask yourself, “Who or what started something?” the answer, again, is Matt Damon. But in this sentence, the writer placed career—not Matt Damon—in the subject position. When the doer of the action is not the subject, the sentence is in passive voice. In passive voice constructions, the doer of the action usually follows the word by as the indirect object of a prepositional phrase, and the action verb is typically partnered with a version of the verb to be.
Writing in the Active Voice
Writing in active voice is easy once you understand the difference between active and passive voice. First, find the verb. Then, ask yourself who did the verb. Is the subject present?
Identify the sentences with active voice:
- Mika kicked the ball.
- The ball was kicked by Mika.
- Great students attend Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
- The university is attended by great students.
- I made a mistake.
- Mistakes were made.
Answers: 1, 3, and 5
Using the Passive Voice
While using the active voice is preferred, sometimes passive voice is the best option. For example, maybe you don’t know who’s responsible for an action or you don’t want to place the blame on someone. For example, you might say “a lamp was broken at our recent party” to avoid saying who broke the lamp.
Principle 2: Use Common Words Instead of Complex Words
Sometimes, new communicators believe that large words feel more appropriate to a business environment. Also, the world is filled with wonderful, long words that are fun to use. Often, however, long words cause more confusion. Worse than that, they can exclude anyone who doesn’t understand that particular word. Maybe you’ve had the experience of reading an academic article or textbook chapter and having to read the same sentence three times over to try to figure out what it was trying to say. Then, when you asked your instructor, they explained it in a simple way. If you’ve ever thought, “Why didn’t they just say it simply from the beginning?” you can understand the power of plain language.
Again, the trick is to use words that are appropriate to the audience, the context and your purpose. As we’ve said, time is the biggest constraint, so simple words likely meet most audiences’ needs. In specialized environments, however, more complex words are required. For example, a lawyer has to use specific, technical language to precisely lay out a case. A doctor has to use medical language to convey a patient’s exact symptoms and diagnosis.
When you enter into a new workplace context, look at how your coworkers are writing to determine the level of formality the situation requires. You can also use one of the many free online tools such as Readability Formulas to determine the reading level of your writing. When you use these tools, you copy and paste some text into the tool and it will estimate the reading level.
Principle #3: Use a Positive Tone Whenever Possible
Unless there is a specific reason not to, use positive language wherever you can. Positive language benefits your writing in two ways. First, it creates a positive tone, and your writing is more likely to be well-received. Second, it clarifies your meaning, as positive statements are more concise. Take a look at the following negatively worded sentences and then their positive counterparts, below.
Negative: Your car will not be ready for collection until Friday.
Negative: You did not complete the exam.
Negative: Your holiday time is not approved until your manager clears it.
Writers don’t just create a positive tone on the sentence level. They can also create this tone by choosing what details to include. If something negative is unimportant to the reader, you can leave it out. Kitty O. Locker called the practice of using “positive emphasis” (Locker, 2016) to meet your audience’s needs “You Attitude.”
This is especially important if a situation is negative to you but not the audience. For example, imagine that you held a fundraiser that didn’t raise as much money as you hoped. This might really impact your budget and the future of some programs you run. But if you’re sending out an email with the goal of getting people to fill out a survey asking for ways to improve the fundraiser, none of this matters.
Read the following two examples, then ask yourself which version would make you more likely to fill out the survey:
Negative Details: Unfortunately, this year’s Gala Under the Stars only raised half of its expected profit. This means that we will need to cancel our Little Stars after-school program and lay off part-time staff. Obviously, this is devastating to our organization, so we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Please fill out this survey to help make the Gala Under the Stars better.
Positive Details: Help us make Gala Under the Stars even better next year. Fill out this five-minute survey and be entered into a draw for two movie tickets.
In the first example, the reader has to wade through negative details in order to get to the survey. They might not even read the email long enough to find out about the survey. In the second example, however, the benefit to reader (free tickets) and what’s being asked of them (to fill out a survey) is listed first. Positive details don’t just lead to a positive tone, they also help you fulfill the purpose of the communication.
Principle 4: Write for your Reader
When you write for your readers and speak to an audience, you have to consider who they are and what they need to know. When readers know that you are concerned with their needs, they are more likely to be receptive to your message, and will be more likely to take the action you are asking them to and focus on important details.
Your message will mean more to your reader if they get the impression that it was written directly to them.
Organize your Document to Meet your Readers’ Needs
When you write, ask yourself, “Why would someone read this message?” Often, it is because the reader needs a question answered. What do they need to know to prepare for the upcoming meeting, for example, or what new company policies do they need to follow? Think about the questions your readers will ask and then organize your document to answer them.
Principle 5: Keep Words and Sentences Shorts (Conciseness)
It is easy to let your sentences become cluttered with words that do not add value to your message. Improve cluttered sentences by eliminating repetitive ideas, removing repeated words, and editing to eliminate unnecessary words.
Eliminating Repetitive Ideas
Unless you are providing definitions on purpose, stating one idea twice in a single sentence is redundant.
Removing Repeated Words
As a general rule, you should try not to repeat a word within a sentence. Sometimes you simply need to choose a different word, but often you can actually remove repeated words.
Original: The student who won the cooking contest is a very talented and ambitious student.
Revision: The student who won the cooking contest is very talented and ambitious.
Rewording to Eliminate Unnecessary Words
If a sentence has words that are not necessary to carry the meaning, those words are unneeded and can be removed.
Original: Gagandeep has the ability to make the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.
Revision: Gagandeep makes the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.
Original: For his part in the cooking class group project, Malik was responsible for making the mustard reduction sauce.
Revision: Malik made the mustard reduction sauce for his cooking class group project.
Avoid Expletive Pronouns (most of the time)
Many people create needlessly wordy sentences using expletive pronouns, which often take the form of “There is …” or “There are ….”
Pronouns (e.g., I, you, he, she, they, this, that, who, etc.) are words that we use to replace nouns (i.e., people, places, things), and there are many types of pronouns (e.g., personal, relative, demonstrative, etc.). However, expletive pronouns are different from other pronouns because unlike most pronouns, they do not stand for a person, thing, or place; they are called expletives because they have no “value.” Sometimes you will see expletive pronouns at the beginning of a sentence, sometimes at the end.
There are a lot of reading assignments in this class.
I can’t believe how many reading assignments there are!
Note: These two examples are not necessarily bad examples of using expletive pronouns. They are included to help you first understand what expletive pronouns are so you can recognize them.
The main reason you should generally avoid writing with expletive pronouns is that they often cause us to use more words in the rest of the sentence than we have to. Also, the empty words at the beginning tend to shift the more important subject matter toward the end of the sentence. The above sentences are not that bad, but at least they are simple enough to help you understand what expletive pronouns are. Here are some more examples of expletive pronouns, along with better alternatives.
Original: There are some people who love to cause trouble.
Revision: Some people love to cause trouble.
Original: There are some things that are just not worth waiting for.
Revision: Some things are just not worth waiting for.
Original: There is a person I know who can help you fix your computer.
Revision: I know a person who can help you fix your computer.
When you find yourself using expletives, always ask yourself if omitting and rewriting would give your reader a clearer, more direct, less wordy sentence. Can I communicate the same message using fewer words without taking away from the meaning I want to convey or the tone I want to create?
Choose Specific Wording
You will give clearer information if you write with specific rather than general words. Evoke senses of taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch with your word choices. For example, you could say, “My shoe feels odd.” But this statement does not give a sense of why your shoe feels odd, since “odd” is an abstract word that does not suggest any physical characteristics. Or you could say, “My shoe feels wet.” This statement gives you a sense of how your shoe feels to the touch. It also gives a sense of how your shoe might look as well as how it might smell, painting a picture for your readers.