Creating clarity in the workplace: the rise of plain English

by Paul Anderson

As a metaphor for plain English, Patricia Hoyle used the little black dress: it is ‘really good quality, looks smart and has a certain elegance to it’.

Patricia owns and is the director of Concise Writing Consultancy that provides plain English writing, editing and training services to corporate and government clients. She was the guest presenter at an online speaker meeting hosted by EdNSW on 4 May 2021.

Patricia began by expanding on her professional bio and career to date. She explained the impact of digital media on the acceptance of plain English, and how plain English editors and writers can be agents of change in the workplace.

Reading trends are changing: there is more reliance on reading onscreen since the internet. We are evolving from being deep readers invested in comprehending complex information to skim readers who browse text. Sampling the first line of text and then word-spotting through the rest is common for people in busy environments.

Workers are under more time pressure and need to efficiently manage large volumes of information, most or all of it digital. Expectations are often high and adverse health effects are emerging. Screen-based reading is more physically and mentally taxing than reading on paper and can cause physiological issues such as eyestrain and headaches.

According to Patricia, ‘plain English just fits so well with those challenges’. It increases efficiency and improves productivity.

She provided a worked example of how plain English might be applied.

Patricia Hoyle

Patricia Hoyle

Does this make sense?

Whilst cloud computing may seem like a significant change to the way business is carried out, cloud computing offers organisations many benefits including the flexibility of making a connection anywhere any time as a result of the growing number of web-enabled devices used in today’s business environment (for example, smartphones and tablets).

The above is a long and complex sentence, heavy with passive voice.

What about this instead?

Smart and professional
Cloud computing has changed the way we do business. With sophisticated smart devices, cloud computing offers the flexibility of connecting anywhere any time.

The content now stands out: the shorter sentences are clearer.

The main elements of plain English writing and editing were summarised as follows:

Make it easy for the reader to:

  • get to the point
  • apply a logical structure
  • eliminate unnecessary repetition (especially where several authors have contributed to the same report)
  • create predictable patterns
  • write descriptive or informative headings
  • use tables and text boxes to break up text
  • use a combination of narrative and bullet points.

Make it easier still, by: 

  • limiting paragraphs to five lines or fewer
  • writing shorter sentences (average 15 to 20 words per sentence; maximum 30)
  • using straightforward rather than complex words (for example, ‘confuse’ rather than ‘obfuscate’)
  • using terminology the reader will understand
  • keeping passive voice to a minimum (20 per cent or less), and making the text sound less bureaucratic.

Patricia gets excited about seeing the transformation plain English can produce from something that is really difficult to understand to something that is easy to read. It can make a huge difference to people’s lives, particularly people in need. She outlined a historical example from her time working for a major government agency: an instance of formal correspondence (written by another employee) that used confusing, distressing and insensitive language.

Patricia has overcome some misconceptions about plain English writing as an agent of change in her work. A client may know what they want, in principle, but not how to get there. She has built respect and trust — and has found it is rewarding when she is simply tasked to ‘just work your magic’.

Sometimes one of the challenges is quantifying the beneficial outcomes of plain English. A client may have recognised they have a need but still want to see the value. Patricia gave an example. A bank conducted a survey after a plain English project. It found a particular section was subsequently receiving fewer queries from customers, which meant the new documents were working.

Patricia concluded with some general reflections on having her own business. She believes the benefits outweigh the challenges.

One important lesson she has learnt: magic happens when you do what you love and what you’re good at. How smart, elegant and simple.

Learn more about plain English in another article in this month’s issue of Gatherings.