If you have to write to influence other people, then this GOV. UK. Plain English guide is for you! Though originally intended to help people writing for GOV. UK, it is equally useful for anyone wishing to influence those working in, or representing local or national government.
Even if you’re writing for a specialist audience, you still need to make sure everyone can understand what the content is about. When you have more than one audience, make your writing as easy to read as possible so it’s accessible to everyone.
Experts often say that because they’re writing technical or complex content for a specialist audience, they do not need to use plain English. This is wrong.
Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible.
For example, research into use of specialist legal language in legal documents found:
- 80% of people preferred sentences written in clear English – and the more complex the issue, the greater that preference (for example, 97% preferred ‘among other things’ over the Latin ‘inter alia’)
- the more educated the person and the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English
People understand complex specialist language, but do not want to read it if there’s an alternative. This is because people with the highest literacy levels and the greatest expertise tend to have the most to read. They do not have time to pore through reams of dry, complicated prose.
There is no recommended minimum or maximum page length. However:
- remember that the pressure on the brain to understand increases for every 100 words you put on a page
This means that the quicker you get to the point, the greater the chance your target audience will see the information you want them to.
It’s most important that you write well. If you write only a single paragraph but it’s full of caveats, jargon and things readers do not need to know (but you want to say) then it’s still too much.
Writing body copy
Keep your body copy as focused as possible.
Remember that you’re likely to be battling outside factors for people’s attention, not least their mood and situation. They might be looking on a mobile on a train, trying to complete their task online in the middle of a stressful family event or any combination of multiple unknowns. If you want their attention, do not waste their time.
- Do not repeat the summary in the first paragraph.
- Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ approach with the most important information at the top tapering down to lesser detail.
- Break up text with descriptive subheadings. The text should still make sense with the subheadings removed.
- Paragraphs should have no more than 5 sentences each.
Make sure your sub-headings are front-loaded with search terms and make them active.
Do not use:
- present participles, for example ‘Apply for a licence’ not ‘Applying for a licence’
- technical terms unless you’ve already explained them
- ‘introduction’ as your first section – users do not want an introduction, just give the most important information
Do not skip heading levels, for example from H2 to H4. Screen reader users may navigate using a list of headings – a missed heading level can make this confusing.
How people read
Knowing how people read means you’ll write in a way they can understand easily and quickly – so you do not waste their time.
All of this guidance is based on the learning skills of an average person in the UK, who speak English as their first language. This guidance also applies when you’re writing for specialists.
By the time a child is 5 or 6 years old, they’ll use 2,500 to 5,000 common words. Adults still find these words easier to recognise and understand than words they’ve learned since.
By age 9, you’re building up your ‘common words’ vocabulary. Your primary set is around 5,000 words; your secondary set is around 10,000 words. You use these words every day.
Use short words instead of long words
When you use a longer word (8 or 9 letters), users are more likely to skip shorter words (3, 4 or 5 letters) that follow it. So if you use longer, more complicated words, readers will skip more. Keep it simple.
“The recently implemented categorical standardisation procedure on waste oil should not be applied before 1 January 2015.”
The ‘not’ is far more obvious in this:
“Do not use the new waste oil standards before 1 January 2015.”
Children quickly learn to read common words (the 5,000 words they use most). They then stop reading these words and start recognising their shape. This allows people to read much faster. Children already read like this by the time they’re 9 years old.
People also do not read one word at a time. They bounce around – especially online. They anticipate words and fill them in.
Your brain can drop up to 30% of the text and still understand. Your vocabulary will grow but this reading skill stays with you as an adult. You do not need to read every word to understand what is written.
This is why we tell people to write on GOV.UK for a 9 year old reading age.
Explaining the unusual
Explain all unusual terms. This is because you can understand 6-letter words as easily as 2-letter words – if they’re in context. If the context is right, you can read a short word faster than a single letter.
By giving full information and using common words, we’re helping people speed up their reading and understand the information in the fastest possible way.
Many people cannot fully understand a sentence if it’s too long. By using common words we can help all users understand sentences of around 25 words.
Capital letters are harder to read
When you learn to read, you start with a mix of upper and lower case but you do not start understanding uppercase until you’re around 6 years old.
At first, you may sound out letters, merge sounds, merge letters and so learn the word.
Then you stop reading it.
At that point, you recognise the shape of the word. This speeds up comprehension and speed of reading.
As writers, we do not want people to read. We want people to recognise the ‘shape’ of the word and understand. It’s a lot faster.
Capital letters are reputed to be 13 to 18% harder for users to read. So try to avoid them.
Block capitals indicate shouting in common online usage.
Ampersands can be hard to understand
Ampersands are allowed in logos – the pictorial logo at the top of an organisation page – but not in body copy.
The reason is that ‘and’ is easier to read and easier to skim.
How users read web pages
Users read very differently online than on paper. They do not necessarily read top to bottom or even from word to word.
Instead, users only read about 20 to 28% of a web page. Where users just want to complete their task as quickly as possible, they skim even more out of impatience.
Web-user eye-tracking studies show that people tend to ‘read’ a webpage in an ‘F’ shape pattern. They look across the top, then down the side, reading further across when they find what they need.
What this means is: put the most important information first. So we talk a lot about ‘front-loading’ sub-headings, titles and bullet points.
For example, say ‘Canteen menu’, not ‘What’s on the menu at the canteen today?’
At the activity centre you can:
At the activity centre:
- you can swim
- you can play
- you can run
Good online content is easy to read and understand.
- short sentences
- sub-headed sections
- simple vocabulary
This helps people find what they need quickly and absorb it effortlessly.
Legal content can still be written in plain English. It’s important that users understand the content and that we present complicated information simply.
If you have to publish legal jargon, it will be a publication so you’ll be writing a plain English summary.
Where the evidence shows there’s a clear user need for including a legal term, for example ‘bona vacantia’, always explain it in plain English.
Footnotes and legal language
Do not use footnotes on documents. They’re designed for reference in print, not web pages. Always consider the user need first. If the information in the footnotes is important, include it in the body text. If it’s not, leave it out.
Know your audience
Your writing will be most effective if you understand who you’re writing for.
To understand your audience you should know:
- how they behave, what they’re interested in or worried about – so your writing will catch their attention and answer their questions
- their vocabulary – so that you can use the same terms and phrases they’ll use to search for content
When you have more than one audience, make your writing as easy to read as possible so it’s accessible to everyone.
Plain English is mandatory for all of GOV.UK. One of the parts most people pick up on is the plain English (or words to avoid) list.
This is not just a list of words to avoid. Plain English is an ethos: it’s a way of writing.
The list is not exhaustive. It’s an indicator to show you the sort of language that confuses users.
Do not use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, and ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’.
We also lose trust from people if we write government ‘buzzwords’ and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. We can do without these words.
With all of these words you can generally get rid of them by breaking the term into what you’re actually doing. Be open and specific.
Write conversationally – picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-to-one but with the authority of someone who can actively help.
For much more, see:https://www.gov.uk/guidance/content-design/writing-for-gov-uk
The A to Z of style: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/style-guide/a-to-z-of-gov-uk-style