I’ve rewritten and edited hundreds of pieces of writing over the years: reports, web text, newsletters, speeches, annual reports etc. The author is stuck – they know their writing isn’t working, and they need help. Typically, I’ll get instructions along the lines of, ‘I think it just needs some plain English to make it punchier.’
You know the plain English drill: swap the jargon for everyday words, shorten the sentences, break up the text with some active sub-headings, and your content will be fighting fit. Right? Probably not.
Usually when authors get stuck, you’ll find one of two things: they’re either saying too much or they’re saying too little. But it’s likely these are symptoms of a deeper problem. Before we get to the source of the problem, let’s examine the symptoms to understand why you can’t always fix them it with plain English.
Symptom #1: Saying too much (a.k.a. the ‘wall of words’)
This occurs when you find 20 ideas on the page and it isn’t clear what’s the single most important idea and what’s down the bottom in the pecking order of ideas. And moreover, by the time you get to the last idea, you’ve forgotten the first ten.
A basic edit won’t fix this problem because even after some plain English wizardry, you’re still left with 20 ideas on the page – only they’re written more clearly.
Symptom #2: Saying too little (a.k.a. ‘buzzword bingo’)
Think about those sentences that start with phrases like ‘we’re solutions-driven innovators’ or ‘we developed a framework to maximise strategic outcomes’. These sentences look meaningful at first glance, but most of the time they’re an impersonation of meaning. They’re like the lyre bird mimicking other birdsongs – they’re all about sounding important, not about saying anything important.
Again, a plain English edit won’t fix these sentences because you’ll be left with even emptier sounding phrases like ‘we have new ways of making things better’. To which the author is likely to retort ,’that’s not what I’m trying to say’.
What are you trying to say, then?
When authors say too much or say too little, it’s generally not their words you need to edit – it’s their ideas. And this ‘idea editing’ begins with two simple criteria: the result your writing needs to achieve and the audience you’re speaking to. This might sound painfully obvious, but it’s surprising how little time people spend on these fundamental points.
1. If it doesn’t support the result you need, delete it
There are only three types of results your writing can achieve: it can get your audience to do something (e.g. wear a mask), think about something (e.g. the train station will be closed tomorrow) or feel something (e.g. trust). Once you’ve worked out the result you need, you should purposefully add detail to help you achieve it and ruthlessly cut out detail that doesn’t.
2. If it doesn’t speak to your audience, delete it
All your detail should be tailored to your audience. Yes, this is about using words that resonate with them, but first it’s about working out what information they need. What’s relevant to them? What do you need to explain and what can you assume they already know? Imagine that your ‘‘audience is an impatient teenager who says, “so what?” in response everything you say. Silence your audience’s inner teenager by keeping the stuff that speaks to them and throwing away the rest.
One last thing
I need to throw a bone to plain English. We should all aspire to talking as simply and clearly as possible. And taking a plain English mindset is a great way to achieve this. But beware of its limitations. Plain English can only tell you how to communicate your ideas, it can’t tell you which ideas you need to communicate.
Talk plain English with Michael: