Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

Sarah Marriot

Do you feel confident that your writing is the best it can be? Or do you sometimes agonise over what you’ve written, unsure if it’s clear, comprehensible and professional?  And do you ever stare at the screen, unable to write a sentence that makes sense?

With the internet and email – on top of the usual reports and letters – we’re all writing more than ever before. This means readers are almost buried under a volcano of written material and so it’s even harder to capture an audience’s attention.

How can you create writing that is strong and clear enough to stand out from the crowd? How can you be confident that your emails are acted upon, your reports are understood, and your website and brochures communicate successfully with your target audience?

The key to writing clearly and effectively is to use plain English. This means writing clearly and simply for your intended readers, so they all get your message the first time they read. Plain English doesn’t mean ‘dumbing down’ or appearing unprofessional; it’s not ‘Ladybird English’.

Most people actually prefer plain English to flowery, over-formal or jargon-heavy writing – and it makes good business sense. For example, research by the Financial Regulator found that 92% of people would read more information on financial products if it was written in plain English. It also saves money; a UK government plain English initiative saved £9 million in printing costs.

How to write successfully with plain English – write with KISSSS (Keep it Short, Simple, Strong and Sincere)

1.Keep it short

Writing wordy, repetitive waffle is quite easy; writing concisely takes more time and effort. As Mark Twain once said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Tip: Avoid using several words where one will do.

Instead of                               Prefer

in the event that              >      if

in the majority of cases   >     usually / mainly

draw to your attention     >      highlight / point out

at this point in time          >      now / currently

2.Keep it simple

Plain English isn’t one-size-fits-all. What’s perfectly plain and simple for one audience might be incomprehensible for another.

For example, if you’re writing about pensions for financial experts, it’s fine to use technical terms and acronyms (and in fact, they expect it), but if you’re writing for a wider audience, you need to clearly explain financial terms and concepts. That’s why it’s vital to identify your target audiences before you start.

Tip: Use everyday English instead of jargon and buzzwords

Instead of                                           Prefer

Feedback      >                                    comments / evaluation / suggestions

Ongoing         >                                   current / continuing

optimum          >                                  best

prior to             >                                  before

going forward  >                                  (you can usually delete it)

3.Keep it strong

Readers often play hard to get . . . giving you just a few seconds to attract their attention and then deserting you at the first sign of difficulty. That’s why your writing needs to be strong, accessible and suitable for people who scan rather than read every word.

Tip:Use bullet point lists if possible

Lists are a great way of grabbing a busy reader’s attention – and they help you to stop waffling.

4.Keep it sincere

When you’re under pressure, it can be difficult to remember you’re writing for real people – and that’s when you might start churning out ‘corporate-speak’.

Your writing should sound as if it’s for a real person. The more you can show sincerity and humanity when you’re communicating with customers and colleagues, the easier it will be to achieve your objectives.

Tip:     Use sincere phrases

Instead of                                                                   Prefer

We acknowledge receipt of your letter.                       Thank you for your letter.

Please do not hesitate to contact me.                        Please contact me on (direct line) if I can be of further help.

Please be advised that …                                           We would like to inform you …

Sarah Marriott is a highly experienced trainer and former journalist who specialises in delivering writing skills courses for the public and private sectors. Sarah has worked as a feature writer and sub-editor in The Irish Times and has been involved in training Irish Times editorial staff. She is a former lecturer on the MA in Journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of ‘Common Errors in Written English’.

Sarah’s upcoming seminars at PAI include:

Plain English, Feb 3rd:

Report Writing, Feb 11th: