Writing is easy. Writing well isn’t.
The good news is that with a bit of practice, some expert support and clear guidance, your writing can and will improve. The secret is to keep it simple, which we touched upon in our two-series guide on writing and structuring content for SEO (part one, part two). The aim of this blog is to give you more of a rounded guide to simple English, one you can refer to time after time. We hope you find it useful.
1. Direction: Start with a plan
The art of planning has definitely been sidelined in recent years as more and more people and businesses turn to content. The problem is volume and cost and the misunderstanding that more content needs to be produced with increasingly diminishing budgets – and at speed. The result is that critical aspects, such as research and planning, can and do get overlooked.
If you’re serious about writing, then you shouldn’t be taking shortcuts. In other words, always make a plan. It can be very general, such as a few notes and some bullet points (we appreciate time is a factor, often imposed). Or it can be extremely detailed, with subheadings and outlines for each section. A plan results in a framework, which you can then flesh out.
2. Structure: Make reading easy
Simple English is about making your content accessible and easy to read. Critical to this is structure, the way your content is organised. Again, in a (digital) world characterised by information overabundance, general attention-deficiency and a heightened sense of time-scarcity, you want to ensure that your content is able to cut through the noise – and maintain interest beyond the initial point of capture.
Some of this touches upon what we call user experience and design – see our blog on why SEO, content and UX should be approached collectively but from a writing – but from a writing perspective it centres on approach. Do you want to organise your article as a listicle? A question and answer format? A pyramid layout? Think about your reader.
3. Concision: Keep sentences short
Generally, yes, the key to simple English is to keep sentences short. That said, long sentences are allowed, so long as they’re clear and easy to follow (I’ve included some long sentences in this post, as an FYI). In terms of length, short sentences average between 15 and 25 words. You can still achieve simplicity with a sentence that is between 25 and 40 words, but anything beyond 40 is likely to be intricate.
Why short sentences and paragraphs? For your audience, they’re easier to read, the information easier to absorb. For you, the writer, they help improve clarity of thought – things are easier to explain when they’re broken up (hence the brilliance of instructions). This is especially true when you’re working with complex subject matters.
4. Familiarity: Use everyday words
There are many, many words in the English language but only a small percentage are useful when it comes to simple English. Think of it this way, if you’re looking to explain something in a memo, highlight the qualities of a product or service in a landing page, or help a reader out with a query, you don’t want to disrupt the thinking process with words that are hard to pronounce or understand. Instead, you want to get across your point(s) a straightforward and swift manner – to the benefit of all.
This you achieve by using simple everyday words, the kind that we’re all familiar with in a personal and professional setting. It’s a mistake to associate long and obscure words with quality writing, or indeed authority, intelligence and expertise. Some of the best and most effective writing is based on simple English guidelines and words that don’t require getting out a dictionary.
5. Verbs: Be active
Active sentences are typically more impactful, more direct and more to the point (i.e. they require less words, which is useful to know when constructing short sentences). Passive sentences, which have come to dominate the written word, tend to be wordier, more longwinded and less direct.
The distinction between these grammatical voices isn’t to say that passivity should be avoided – it has its place in writing. However, if we’re aiming for precision, ease and brevity, being active is essential. The simplest way to think about it when writing is that active is when someone does something, and passive is when something is done to someone. Quick example: The editor edited a terrible piece of content (active). A terrible piece of content was edited by the editor (passive).