Plain English is the cornerstone of good customer service. It’s about creating messages that are clear, concise and free of technical jargon. When used correctly, it helps your content become more relatable, trustworthy and engaging.
The top 6 principles of Plain English web writing:
Use the active voice wherever possible
Use lists where appropriate
Be concise and remove unnecessary filler words
Give clear directions and avoid fluffy platitudes
Use familiar language that most people will understand
Keep accessibility top of mind for diverse readers
How to write in the active voice
Using the active voice adds more clarity and impact to your writing by using fewer words to communicate a message. The easiest way to transform a sentence from passive to active is to bring whoever or whatever is doing the action to the start of the sentence. Here’s the grammar breakdown:
Elana walked the dog.
Pablo painted the whole house blue.
The dog was walked by Elana.
The whole house was painted blue by Pablo.
Be concise and cut to the chase
Most people are looking for quick answers and immediate reward when they’re reading on the web. By writing concise, punchy sentences, we’re more likely to hold people’s attention and help them find the answers they’re looking for quickly and efficiently.
Keep sentences between 15-20 words, but try not to sound robotic.
Where it makes sense to, remove filler words like ‘as’ or ‘that’ from sentences. Read it out loud to ensure the sentence still works.
Swap out two- or three-word phrases for one-word alternatives. For example, you could replace the phrase ‘a number of…’ with ‘many’.
Use headings and sub-headings to signpost and separate distinct areas of information.
Use dot points to break up paragraph lengths and running lists.
Use familiar language
Most people overthink their writing. In efforts to “sound professional” they overbake it and it ends up reading like a dog’s breakfast. The trick is to throw your ego out the window and write as if you’re talking to a 15-year-old. If they read it, would they understand it?
If the answer is no, stop typing and take a breath. Remember that 15-year-old I mentioned? Imagine they’re sitting across from you. Explain the concept out loud as if you’re having a conversation with them. Then, write down exactly what you said. More often than not, this technique will solve your problem.
Here’s some other ways to keep your language familiar and easy to understand:
use inclusive language like ‘we’ and ‘our’
speak directly to your readers by using the word ‘you’ in place of ‘our customers.’
Use lists where appropirate
Lists are your friend. Use them wherever possible to:
break up long passages of text so readers can quickly scan and understand messages
organise information in a logical order, from most to least important
add extra white space for easy reading.
Give clear directions
When it comes to giving instructions, it’s all about being direct. Don’t be afraid to be a bit bossy, it’s much clearer when you are.
Clearly step out the sequence of actions people need to take with a numbered list.
Try and keep your language positive as negative phrasing can be easily misunderstood when speed reading. For example, write “Do this” rather than “don’t do this”.
Skip the pleases and platitudes and get to the point. Instead of saying something like “customers are kindly advised to read the terms and conditions before purchasing from us” just say “read the terms and conditions before buying”.
Write for web accessibility
Writing for web accessibility is all about reaching diverse audiences. By writing more meaningful alternative text, call to actions, hyperlinks and headings, people with the following impairments will still be able to read and understand your content just as well as anyone else can.
Auditory: being hard of hearing or deaf can make audio recordings problematic.
Cognitive and neurological: some disorders, disabilities, behavioural and mental health conditions can affect how well people can understand and retain information.
Physical: some conditions – like arthritis, amputation, paralysis and stress injuries – can make using a mouse or keyboard difficult which can make page navigation harder.
Speech: people who have difficulty speaking can experience difficulties with speech recognition software.
Visual: people who have partial or complete loss of sight – such as colour blindness, blindness or low vision – may need to use a screen reader to process web content, or change the size of the font on their screen.
How you can make your copy more accessible:
Audio recordings and videos
Create transcripts and captions as alternative options so that people can read what is being said instead.
Hyperlink text and buttons
Use meaningful link copy by referring directly to the target destination and explicitly state the action in button text so users know exactly what will happen next in their journey.
Instead of “read more” say “read more about bikes”.
Instead of saying “click here” say “buy now”.
Images and graphics
This is all about being really descriptive and specific. For example, if there’s a picture of a boy at the beach, don’t just write “boy at the beach”. Describe what you see with more detail. “Brown-haired boy plays with sand at Bondi beach.”
If it’s a technical illustration of how to put a laptop on to charge, be specific about where and how the charging port plugs into the computer.
H1, H2 and H3 heading structures aren’t just for SEO. The mark-up actually allows users of assistive technologies, like screen readers, to navigate pages more effectively; It helps them to easily find and understand topics covered on a page and skip past anything that’s not of interest. For this reason, make sure you use them sequentially. H1, H2, H3, H4, not H3, H2, H4, H1.
For more information, resources and strategies on making your web content more accessible, visit The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).