Why writing in Plain English adds value!

By Stephanie Foster, PAM Group

Published 21 February 2022

Employers commission Occupational Health to supply an opinion in the form of a written report. They ask us to assess and advise them on how an individual’s health affects their ability to perform their role and to suggest adjustments. But how often have you stopped to ask yourself, how effective am I being at getting this information across? We may give excellent evidence-based advice, but what use is that to the customer, if they cannot easily understand the report?

I recently read a blog that made me stop and reflect on this. Morris (2014) suggests “In work, we write so we can do something. If you want your writing to achieve its goal, then do all you can to make life easy for your reader. Keep it short, avoid unnecessary technical language, and use clear, simple words. It will increase your chances of being read and understood rather than skimmed or binned.”

The Plain English Campaign highlights the importance of avoiding “gobbledegook” to make sure information is accessible. Their website offers advice on writing in Plain English, as well as providing an A-Z suggesting simpler alternatives to complex words.

To help you adapt your writing style you may want to try software such as Editor (available with an office 365 subscription) or Grammarly. Both programmes help ensure correct spelling and grammar. Getting this right helps emphasise your professionalism and inspire your customer’s confidence in your advice. If you get a letter or report that has errors in it, how does this make you feel? Does it inspire trust? Probably not. Proofreading your report aloud can help show you any mistakes. If you saw my article on IT Accessibility you will know that I use the read-aloud tool either in word or a browser to do this (Foster, 2021). I find it helpful as it reads what is actually written, not what I think is there.

You can use the Flesch Reading Ease score to gauge how easily your audience can understand your work. The higher the score the easier the article is to read.

An average 13-year-old can understand writing with a score of 60-70. Microsoft Word will calculate this for you if the feature is enabled. It will also give you the average number of words per sentence.

As you read the words of a sentence you interpret their meaning. You do not form a final impression of what it says until the end. The longer the sentence, the more you must hold in your memory before putting it all together. So, the greater the number of words used in a sentence, the more concentration and focus the reader needs to understand it.

Writing in plain English does not mean “talking down” to your audience. Instead, it is a writing style that makes it easy for them to understand your work at the first reading. The use of overly complicated language, rather than impressing, can make your report harder to understand. I admit to a twinge of sadness in retiring some of my favourite words, such as ameliorate and expedite. But if my customer needs to reach for the dictionary or read a sentence two or three times to understand my meaning, I have not achieved my aim.

References

Foster, S. (2021) ‘Disability and IT Accessibility, OH Today, pp. 12–17. Available at: https://issuu.com/ioh1/docs/oh_today_autumn_2021 (Accessed: 28 January 2022).

How to write in plain English (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 29 January 2022).

Morris, M. (2014) Guest Post: Clarity is king – the evidence that reveals the desperate need to re-think the way we write – Government Digital Service, Government Digital Service. Gov.uk. (Accessed: 28 January 2022).

Useful websites

Free guides (plainenglish.co.uk)

Introducing Grammarly for Windows and Mac | Grammarly Blog

Get your document’s readability and level statistics. Available at: support.microsoft.com/en-us/office

 

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