Clear, helpful and human: writing in plain English

Fed up with baffling language? Far from dumbing down, clear communication means making complex concepts more inclusive and accessible; a useful skill when it comes to demystifying data protection. 

Storytelling is at the heart of Project Bijou, the ODPA’s social initiative to change behaviour and shift culture to reduce data harms. Through clear communication, your message is more likely to be heard, and people are more likely to understand what they need to do.  

In this Project Bijou guest blog, Emma Butler of Creative Privacy, explains what plain English is, why it matters and how anyone can write more clearly following a few simple guidelines. There is short accompanying video here  (or you can listen to audio only here)

Everything you write should have a purpose or a goal.  Knowing who you are writing for and understanding why you are writing it are key. The goal is for people to read it once and understand it. If every time you write you aim to be clear, helpful, polite and human you won’t go far wrong. 

BLOG: Clear, helpful and human: writing in plain English

What does plain English mean?
Contrary to what some believe, it’s not about dumbing down or treating people like children. Plain English (or plain language) is about being able to understand something the first time you read it. It involves using words and phrases your audience can understand to get your message across. It also involves looking at how you present your words: size, font, layout, colours and formatting. 

Why is it important?
We have all known the frustration of trying to understand long-winded letters and e-mails. Or materials written in legalese, bureaucratic language or full of jargon. Beyond mere frustration there is a real risk that the reader will not understand the message or instruction. The consequences of this can range from minimal impact (not using a discount to buy something) to serious impact (not getting benefits or services you are entitled to).  

Clear communication also leads to greater trust in the organisation behind it. Sometimes, people hide behind poor writing because they don’t want to be clear, or they want to avoid accountability. But often poor writing comes from a lack of thought or understanding about clear communication. And maybe a lack of skills too. Sometimes it’s just how things have always been done.

Ultimately, anyone writing something they want someone else to read has a reason for doing so. It might be to provide information or sell products and services. It could be because you want or need the reader to take action. If you don’t communicate clearly, the reader won’t get your message or your call to action.  

First steps
Before you write anything, you need to know who you are writing it for, and why you are writing it. 

Once you know who your audience is, you can make sure you write in a way that works for them. You might choose a different tone or style. It will influence how much jargon and specialist language you use. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Will it make sense? Will they get your intended message?

Knowing why you are writing something also includes knowing what you want the audience to get from it. Are you providing information or do you need them to take any action? Once you understand the why, you can present the information in the way that makes most sense and achieves the goal. 

Key hints and tips
●    Plan what you want to say, and the order you want to say it in.
●    Always present the most important information clearly and upfront.
●    Think about how best to present the information. 
●    Try to use everyday and commonly-used words and phrases, unless your audience will struggle with them (for example, those with different first languages).
●    Only use jargon and technical terms if they are suitable for the audience.
●    Choose shorter words and sentences over long or complicated ones. Mix up sentences of different lengths.
●    Turn long sentences into lists to see if it makes the information clearer.
●    Use active verbs rather than passive. Use verbs over nouns.
●    Say what you mean.
●    Check your spelling, grammar and punctuation make sense. 
●    Put yourself in the eyes of the reader: will they understand it the first time they read it?

Some examples
❌ Passive: The new bus timetable will be issued in May
✅ Active: We will issue the new bus timetable in May.

Verbs not nouns
The provision of this information is necessary.
✅ You need to provide this information.

Abbreviations to avoid
●    etc - instead use ‘and so on’
●    eg - instead use ‘for example’
●    ie - instead use ‘that is’

Grammar myths busted
Language is constantly evolving and what was unthinkable in the past is accepted practice now. However, there are still plenty of different opinions on aspects of language and grammar. And what one person thinks is fine, will send another into a rage!  

So, in my opinion, when they make your writing flow better and make sense to the reader, there is no issue with doing any of the following.

●    Start a sentence with these words: and, but, because, so or however.
●    End a sentence with a preposition: ‘we need to decide which topic to focus on’.
●    Use the same word more than once in a sentence or paragraph if it is the right word and you don’t have a clearer one.
●    Split an infinitive verb: ‘the aim is to more than double our revenue by 2024’.

Presenting information
The way you present the information is just as important as the words you use. Think about:
●    layout; 
●    white space; 
●    font type and size;
●    sentence spacing;
●    text alignment; and
●    headings (use bold and larger text rather than underline or italics).

Aim to make your writing as inclusive and accessible as you can. Consider whether your audience will include those whose dominant language isn’t English. Also think about whether there will be readers with visual impairments, dyslexia, colour blindness or who use screen readers. 

Avoid writing in all capital letters - as well as looking like you’re shouting, it is harder to read for those with visual impairments, as all the letters are the same size. Our brains use the shape of letters to help us read and understand them.

For a similar reason, left justify your text (like this blogpost is). Full justification is common in legal documents but it makes all the sentences the same length, and puts uneven spaces between words, making it harder to read.

If you remember nothing else, remember this:
If you aim to be clear, helpful, human and polite, you won’t go far wrong.
Happy writing!

Emma Butler is an experienced privacy professional who runs her own consultancy - Creative Privacy. She has been working in privacy since 2005 when she joined the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office to lead the international policy team. That role involved working with other regulators and the Article 29 Working Party, as well as advising businesses and government entities on UK, EU and international privacy legislation. 

After seven years there she moved to the private sector to work as a Data Protection Officer (DPO). She spent four years in the privacy team at RELX Group, specifically as the DPO for both LexisNexis Legal UK and LexisNexis Risk UK, and then spent four years as DPO for Yoti, a biometric digital identity company.

She has a degree in French, Italian and linguistics, an LLM in Information Rights Law and Practice, an ISEB certificate in data protection, CIPP/E and CIPP/M and is also an IAPP Fellow in Information Privacy (FIP).