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Do you need to be a mind reader to write in plain English? No, but it helps.

As a writer, you need to put yourself in the readers’ shoes and write in a way that helps them understand easily.

We’ve all been there. Filling in an insurance form or making a tax return can be really frustrating if you don’t understand the questions or what information they’re actually looking for.

Sometimes, the language is unfamiliar. For instance, what does ‘loss adjustment’ in an income tax form actually mean?  And sometimes, you simply don’t know what they want. For example, when an insurance form asks about your income for the ‘forthcoming year’ – do they mean in the 12-month period from now or the next calendar year?

These problems arise because the writers are experts in the topic – but they’re writing for people who are not. And they forgot one vital point.

Plain English means thinking about people

Before starting to write, think in detail about the people who’re going to read. You might be writing an email for one person, a report for 20 colleagues or web content for thousands of people. The first step is the same. Identify your main target audiences (and then your secondary target audiences).

  • Who are they? For example, what is their location, age group and first language?

All this matters.

Location: If you’re writing for an international audience or for people who’ve recently come to live in Ireland, don’t assume they know much about the place. This means you might need to provide details that an Irish reader won’t need. It might also influence the words you use. For instance, writing about ‘the dole’ could mystify non-Irish and non-British readers.

Age group: Young people and older people may have different expectations about writing style. Should emails to older customers use a more formal tone of voice? Will younger readers be put off by long paragraphs and ‘posh’ words?

First language: Think about readers who don’t have fluent English. Prefer words that are commonly used and avoid anything very formal (like notwithstanding) or slang.

Literacy: Don’t assume everyone can read everything. When you’re writing for the public, choose everyday words and use short sentences.

Role: If you’re writing for professionals, adapt your content and language to meet their expectations. For example, information on pensions for financial advisors can use technical terms, but a pensions guide for the public should avoid jargon (or explain it).

  • What do they already know? This is where a bit of mind-reading could be useful. You need to pitch your messages so they’re suitable for your target audiences. You don’t want to bore them by telling them things they already know (or don’t need to know). Equally, you don’t want to confuse or frustrate them by not providing enough clear information, or by using words they won’t easily understand.

Try to visualise each type of reader – and even give them names. For example, you’re writing instructions on how to apply for a tax rebate: for Aunty Mary who is a retired teacher, Pavel who is a construction worker from Poland living in Dublin, and Sinead who works in a supermarket in rural Ireland.

As you write, put yourself in all the shoes of each type of reader, in turn, and check that each one will understand easily. Make sure you’re providing all the details they need and won’t have questions or doubts after they finish reading.

  • What are readers going to do with it? Why are they reading?

Sometimes, we read for pleasure or simply for information. Often, though, we read because we need to use the content in some way. For example, you read your health insurance policy when you need to make a claim or you fill in a form because you want to apply for a state benefit.

As you plan and write, bear this in mind. Your aim as a writer is to make it easy for your readers (colleagues or customers) to do what they need to do.

Remember this simple definition of plain language: Write to help your intended readers understand the first time they read. That’s why it’s so important to identify them clearly, before you start to write.

By Sarah Marriott

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 at The Irish Times. She has also 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. 

On Wednesday 15 May, Sarah Marriott will lead a Plain English workshop. Click here for more information or to book.