Speak easy, or is that easily?

Our sister company Optimal Usability won a Plain English Award recently for their clear and concise web content. So I thought now would be a great time to speak about plain English power in our branch of the Optimal family.
I’ve always thought plain English (or any other language!) is to content what usability is to design. It just makes things easier to read, to understand and to act on. It means not trying as hard to be comprehensive as comprehensible.
A quick test for plain English is whether you can understand something after just one reading. This rule of thumb guides all our communication: on our website, in our usability products, even our emails.
Plain English doesn’t mean boring, dumbed down or even everyday English. We are often dealing with complex information and that makes the challenge even greater, and more rewarding. Turning technical specs or instructions into plain English can sometimes feel like translating from one language to another. You’ll know you’ve nailed it when that sentence you’ve laboured over finally feels effortless.
If I was to offer just one tip for making your writing crystal clear it would be:

1. Read your writing aloud

You’ll stumble over anything that doesn’t need to be there.

And then if you begged me for another pearl of wisdom it would be:

2. Put it down for a few days

and then go back to tip #1

Of course plain English wouldn’t have the universal profile it does today without the schadenfreud factor. Every year crimes against clarity are celebrated for their ability to confound as much as perfect specimens are held up as shining examples.
After you’ve checked out the winners in the WriteMark Plain English Awards be horrified at the ‘brainstrains’ and the Plain English UK Golden Bull awards.
My personal favourite is from the Canadian Emergency Medical Service news report after a man had been attacked and lost part of his ear. They reported it like this:
'He was missing a body part to the side of his head due to the assault. Luckily he was [in] stable and non-life-threatening [condition].'
Sometimes you need to know how not to do something before you can learn to do it well.

Published on Jan 11, 2012
Andrew Mayfield

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