As a plain-English editor and writer I sometimes feel like a stonemason. Please, let me explain.

Let’s enter a parallel universe (or at least one where matter can be emailed). In this world, I am regularly sent large stone sculptures that have been created by capable, smart people. The intellectual calibrating has been completed, the ideas corralled, and the strategy behind them well-considered. However, the shape remains unwieldy, unfinished and unclear. The desired image is evident in the roughly chiselled stone but it’s not as plain or apparent as it could be.

The writing is letting it down.

Yep, it’s overly bureaucratic, too formal, too dense, repetitive, burdened by legalese, jargon or self-importance, or jarring with the tones and styles of its numerous authors (I refer to this as Frankensteinian). In addition, figures or statements may be contradictory or the logic and flow is not as smooth and accessible to the intended audience as it could be. Put simply, it doesn’t give the reader the best chance of understanding the message, taking the desired actions or seeing your desired brand image on the first reading.

Enter the plain-English stone chisel

An ’external‘ set of eyes with a fresh perspective is the best way to cut through the fog of familiarity that is built up around a document by its authors and stakeholders. Sending such a ’sculpture‘ out the door, without the benefit of the plain-English stone chisel, jeopardises the fantastic work your team may have put into creating it.

Let’s start with an example of how plain English can offer more with less from Neil James’ great book Writing At Work:

Before: In accordance with your request, and in consideration of the fact that significant time has elapsed, it is incumbent upon you to facilitate the identification of the certificate. It would be appreciated if you would ascertain this information in a timely manner. (42 words)

After: To meet your request, we need you to find and send us a copy of your certificate as soon as possible. (21 words)

While we are at it here’s another from a recent job we did for a leading insurance company:

Before: For your information, we have received your request to cancel your policy and confirm that your policy has now been cancelled. (21 words)

After: As requested, we’ve cancelled your policy. (6 words)

And finally here’s one from a recent university journal we were commissioned to edit for general consumption:

Original: Over the last decade the primary motivation for the increasing role of technology in service organisations has been to reduce costs and eliminate uncertainties as well as being used to standardise services by reducing the heterogeneity prevalent in the typical employee/customer encounter. (42 words)
 
APM solution: Over the last decade technology has greatly reduced costs and eliminated uncertainties in service organisations. It has also helped to standardise customer service delivery. (24 words)

A good plain-English editor and writer is committed to spreading the gospel of straightforward communication. They bring a religious fervour to the transformation of brochures, annual reports, policy documents, websites and more into the fully-realised masterpieces intended by government departments, agencies, brands, law firms, corporations and NGOs. All this, without altering the meaning or intention of the copy, and never changing facts or figures. The end result is a more effective and direct communication to your clients, customers, investors, electorates and employees. It’s a leaner, more logical and concise document, complete with perfect grammar, punctuation and spelling, that motivates action on the first reading.

Now, where’s my marble saw?

For more on our recent plain-English chiselling from the Department of Health’s Aging Policy to NAB’s Annual Report please visitwww.andewpeglermedia.com.au To keep up with my posts please click ‘Follow’ (at the top of the page)

Here are three plain English things you can do right now.

  1. Email me on andrew@andrewpeglermedia.com.auand I will send you a printable, designer pdf of my eight tips for writing plain English at work.
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  3. Leave a comment below: Let’s start a conversation about plain English. Go on, you know you want to!