What is plain English?
Plain English is writing that is clear and concise. It is crafted with the audience in mind and can be understood easily and quickly.
This article is written in plain English.
What are the advantages of using plain English?
- Plain English simplifies a message so that it can be quickly and easily understood.
- It is a way of conveying complex ideas in a way that most readers can understand.
- The audience can grasp the message the first time they read it – it is suitable for busy policy makers.
- It avoids obscurity.
- It clarifies words or concepts that may be new or hard to understand for some people.
- It sounds more friendly and engaging than technical language.
- Most governments require communications for the public to be written in plain English. There is therefore an advantage for our policy audience if we can express complex research in this way.
Writing in plain English is often more difficult and time consuming than writing at length. However, it is worth it because a broader audience will understand your message. Plain English makes your research more accessible and addresses equity issues.
How to write
First, organise your information
As with any communication, audience is key. Think about your audience and what they need to know.
Think about the key messages you would like to tell your audience. Write these down in a logical order.
Use appropriate language
Plain English means you need to find short, clear, commonly used words wherever possible.
Use words with as few syllables as possible. Of course, longer words will sometimes be necessary, such as someone’s name or the title of a research project. But, in general, use words such as those in the examples below.
Avoid jargon and technical terms – unless they are familiar to your specific audience. If you need to use a technical term, explain what it means the first time you use it.
Avoid nominalisations (where you turn a verb into a noun or adjective). For example, change: ‘The study effects’ to: ‘The effects of the study’.
The main question to ask yourself when choosing a word or phrase is: Will everyone understand it?
Here are some examples of shorter, simpler words that are more appropriate for writing in plain English.
|Efficacy||Gets the results you want|
|Eliminate||Cut, get rid of|
|In excess of||More than|
|Necessitate||Make necessary, need|
|Participate||Join, take part in|
|Per annum||Per year|
|Similarly||Also, in the same way|
Try to make your writing as succinct and punchy as possible. You can do this by:
- Keeping sentences simple and short (no more than 15-20 words each)
- Conveying one idea only per sentence (even in a longer sentence)
- Cutting out all unnecessary words
- Using lists with bullets points to split up information.
The distinction between communicable and chronic disease is not absolute, with many infectious diseases having prolonged, sometime lifelong chronic elements (for example, individuals with HIV whose viral load is controlled with antiretroviral therapy). Some communicable diseases are recognised causative agents for some chronic diseases, and that some chronic diseases may in turn contribute to susceptibility to communicable disease (for example, obesity and COVID-19 morbidity and mortality).
Infectious disease (disease you catch) is not separate from chronic disease (long-lasting illness). Many people have long-lasting illnesses after an infectious disease. For example, people with HIV need to take medicines for a long time to control their condition. Some infectious diseases can cause chronic disease. People with chronic disease may be more likely to catch an infectious disease. For example, people living with obesity are more likely to get sick or die from COVID-19.
Use active voice wherever possible
Using active voice is one of the most effective ways of turning your prose into plain English.
Active voice is when the subject performs an action. Passive voice is when the subject has something done to it.
Active voice: The researchers conducted a study.
Passive voice: The study was conducted by the researchers.
Active voice is direct and strong. It minimises the number of words you need to use.
Passive voice introduces complexity into a sentence and requires extra words. It can also appear evasive to the audience (‘An error was made…’ rather than ‘We made an error…’).
However, passive voice may be appropriate sometimes – for example, when trying to not to attribute blame, or when the action is more important than who performed it.
If you’re not sure whether something is passive tense, check whether it uses a form of the verb ‘to be’ along with the past participle of another verb. Another clue is when a sentence uses ‘by’ a person or thing.
i.e. ‘The ball was thrown by…’
A qualitative approach incorporating semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and document review was used to facilitate an in-depth investigation of the research topic.
We investigated this topic through interviews, watching people and reviewing documents.
Review your writing
Always take time to review the text to make sure your ideas are conveyed in the simplest way possible. Reading your draft aloud is an easy way to identify sentences that are unclear or too long.
Review each sentence. Are there words you can cut out? Can you simplify the structure?
Are there any technical terms or jargon that you can replace with simpler words?
You can use an online readability calculator to assess your work. However, these don’t give the full picture of how readable a passage is. Ask a non-expert to user test your writing for a more accurate assessment.
Remember, the main thing is that the writing makes sense and is easy to understand.
Writing is usually assessed by using reading levels. These are based on US school grades (which roughly align with Australian school grades). For a text to be considered plain English, it requires a reading level of Grade 8-9.
- Sydney Health Literacy Lab Health Literacy Editor
- Hemmingway App
- Flesch and Flesch-Kincaid readability score calculator
- Microsoft Word has an Editor feature which you can set for the tone of writing and check for clarity and conciseness, spelling and grammar.
Note: Technical terms or words with several syllables can push up the reading level. Sometimes these are unavoidable. Make sure you explain any technical terms the first time you use them.
Further reading and resources
- Australian Government: Style Manual
- Victorian Government: Writing plain language
- Plain English Campaign (UK): How to write in plain English
- Plain English Campaign: A-Z of alternative words
- UK Government: Plain English style guide
- New Zealand Government: Plain language
- University of Michigan Library: Plain Language Medical Dictionary
More from the CERI User Guide
This chapter of the User Guide is one in a series available from The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre website. It was prepared by members of the Collaboration for Enhanced Research Impact (CERI) Coordinating Group to provide practical tips on knowledge mobilisation and science communication for researchers working in the prevention of chronic disease.
The Collaboration for Enhanced Research Impact (CERI) is a joint initiative between the Prevention Centre and several NHMRC Centres of Research Excellence, established in June 2020 to enhance the profile and impact of chronic disease prevention in Australia. We are working together to find alignment in the policy and practice implications of our work and to develop shared communications across our various projects and participating centres.