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10 plain English principles for writing better web content

Iain Broome • 6 minutes

Writing is never about the writer.

It’s about the reader. And nowhere more so than on the web, where attention is limited and people, for the most part, don’t want to hang around.

They want to move forward. They want to do something.

Plain English can help with that.

It’s not about simplifying your work or heavy-handed editing. It’s not about stifling creativity. Plain English is about understanding who your reader is, what they want, then writing in a way that speaks to them clearly and concisely.

Plain English is about understanding your reader and writing in a way that speaks to them clearly

Once you get the hang of it, plain English is faster to write and easier to read. Most importantly, you are much more likely to get your message across. Everyone wins.

So how do you do it?

1. Write short sentences

Short sentences are easier to read. Simple as that.

Aim for 15–20 words, but be sure to mix it up because good writing of any kind relies on rhythm. Short is better, but your writing needs to flow. That might mean writing a slightly longer sentence here and there, but that’s fine if the paragraph reads better and the meaning is clear.

A good rule of thumb is to aim for one point or idea per sentence. That might sometimes sound ambitious and, of course, some concepts are trickier to explain than others. However, most sentences can be sliced and diced in some way or another.

Keep it short. Be playful. Find your rhythm.

2. Use the active voice

This is all about verbs.

Active verbs make your sentences direct, dynamic and easy to read. Passive verbs can make sentences confusing, ambiguous and, I’m afraid to say, rather boring.

Let’s look at structure. Sentences that include active verbs piece together in a specific way.

The cat (subject) sat on (verb) the mat (object).

The subject comes before the verb so the reader knows what the subject (the cat) is doing (sitting) before we say where (on the mat).

Here’s a passive version of the same sentence.

The mat (object) was sat on (verb) by the cat (subject).

This sounds more clunky. It’s not how we would describe what is happening if we said it out loud. Typically, we talk in the active voice.

The passive version also needs two extra words for it to make sense. If you ever need to reduce your word count, hunt down your passive verbs and make them active. It works every time.

Should you always avoid the passive voice? No, not really. Sometimes you don’t know who or what the subject of a sentence is and sometimes a passive verb might be more appropriate or just sounds better.

However, for the most part, write active verbs. They make your writing clearer, conversational and more engaging.

Writing for the web? Use active verbs, they make your writing conversational and more engaging

3. Use I, we and you

Pronouns are your pals.

If you’re writing on behalf of an organisation, say, “We do this…” or, “Our product does that…” Use the company name if you feel it’s more appropriate, but most of the time it won’t be.

Likewise, speak directly to the reader. Don’t refer to them as ‘customers’ or your ‘audience’ and please, I beg of you, don’t call them ‘users’.

Remember, plain English is about communicating clearly. You are only ever writing for one person, so be conversational and say, “You can do this…” or, “Your information is…

Bonus Material! Grab a PDF of our Audience Research Checklist and get started with understanding your audience.

Download the Audience Research Checklist

Pronouns help you avoid stuffy writing. They allow you to focus on the reader and sound more friendly, helpful, human.

4. Write for your reader

This might seem obvious, but use words that make sense to your reader. Most websites have a broad audience, so it’s a good idea to use everyday language and avoid jargon.

A quick note on jargon, actually. Many people think of it as buzzwords, acronyms and outright poppycock. But some jargon is fine if it fits the context and, once again, makes sense to the reader.

This is why plain English is not dumbing down. Finding the simplest way to communicate with someone does not mean being simple. It means planning ahead, knowing your audience and making no assumptions.

Plain English isn’t dumbing down. It’s finding the simplest way to communicate to your audience

Know your message. Learn about your reader. Pick words they’ll understand.

5. Give instructions

The internet is meant for moving around. It’s your job to help people get things done and go where they want to go.

Tell people what to do. Give them instructions. Be bossy.

In general, the web is pretty good at this. We follow, like, share, subscribe and buy several times a day. The move to mobile has only strengthened the argument for writing short, direct instructions. Most people know the lingo.

Don’t get bogged down by politeness. If you want your reader to take action, let them know about it. Be direct.

Don’t say: The document should be downloaded.

Do say: Download the document.

Don’t say: Applicants are advised to read the job profile.

Do say: Read the job profile.

As you can see, the alternative to giving instructions is longer sentences, passive verbs, and far fewer pronouns. And you know how we feel about that.

6. Avoid nominalisation

A nominalisation is an abstract noun formed from a verb. They are typically processes, feelings and other intangibles that you read and run into every single day. You probably hate them.

Some nominalisation examples:

“On completion of the task.”

“We had a discussion.”

“She made a suggestion.”

Here’s how they read if you use the verb instead:

“When the task is complete.”

“We discussed.”

“She suggested.”

As you can see, the verbs mean fewer words, are more direct and lead to more interesting, engaging sentences. They are also more active – something is actually happening.

7. Use headings and lists

A classic piece of writing for the web advice, but also a staple of plain English. Headings and lists help break up a page, split information and make the whole thing easier to read and scan.

Make sure your headings are meaningful. Of course, it’s all about context. But in most cases, a good heading should tell the reader what they’ll find or learn in the copy below.

Lists are great for presenting complex or multiple pieces of information. Include one point or idea per bullet. Only use a numbered list if there really is a specific order to the items. On the web, avoid multiple lists on a single web page. Lots of lists are as tricky to scan as no lists at all.

There are many ways of writing lists. My advice is to pick one and stick with it. Be consistent. If you work with multiple clients, check their style guides to see how they do it. If they don’t have a guide, you can set the standard. Make decisions. Show them the way.

8. Write accessible hyperlinks

This isn’t strictly a plain English principle, but I think it should be if you write for the web.

In short, your links should mean something. They should tell the reader where they will go if they tap or click on them, not least because your reader might not be a ‘reader’ at all.

People with limited sight often use a screen reader to browse the internet. The device pulls up a list of links on a page and reads them back in audio form. If those links don’t have meaning – think ‘click here’ and ‘read more’ – the listener will have no idea where they lead.

Don’t say: Check out my blog post.

Do say: Read my article about writing accessible links.

Beyond accessibility issues, clearly written links help the reader get from one place to another. They should be able to scan a page, see its links and make a quick decision.

Your job is to help them do that. Badly written, ambiguous links will only frustrate and, in some cases, send them on a wild goose chase.

Don’t frustrate users with badly written, ambiguous links. Consider that content too

9. Create a standard words document

Consistency is key to any writing project. A standard words document is simple to produce, but can have a huge impact on the quality of your copy.

The document is a list of names, phrases and frequently used words alongside their correct usage. From how to correctly spell the name of an organisation to an agreed method for writing dates, times and page titles, standard words are vital, especially if you work in a team.

There is no point you writing one way if other people in your team – or your client – is doing it differently. A standard words document should be a living, breathing thing that gets updated and maintained regularly.

I’ve created a standard words template as part of my writing style guide starter kit. You are welcome to download and use it for free.

10. Get in the habit

Finally, writing plain English is about forming a habit. If you can make it part of your daily writing process, these principles will soon become second nature. You won’t worry or even think about whether your verbs are active or not.

Putting it into practice

Here’s a simple exercise that you can do at any time. Find 100 words and cut them to 50 without losing any meaning.

The more convoluted and badly written the extract, the easier it should be! Split long sentences. Hunt out those passive verbs. Make it punchy. Make it clear.

Hopefully, you’re about to rush off and start putting these plain English principles into action in your own writing. If you’d like more information and a boatload of excellent free resources, I recommend you take a look at the Plain English Campaign website. It’s full of goodies that you can bookmark and refer to time and again.

10 plain English principles for writing better web content

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About the Author

Iain Broome

Writer, editor and content producer, Very Meta

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