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Plain English: what does it really mean for your comms?

19 September 2017

Commercial brands have been doing it for years. Even lawyers are committing to it these days. But what are the key things charity communicators need to remember when writing in plain English?

Think hard about your audience

Who are you talking to? What do they already know about this topic? What do you want them to know/think/feel next?

Hopefully you answered these questions when preparing your brief. Make sure you revisit them throughout the writing process. An essential part of plain English is writing with your intended audience in mind at all times – and making sure they will understand exactly what you’re saying, the first time they read it.

Understand your content inside out

Could you explain your message to a child?

It sounds obvious, but if you’re dealing with a complex idea, you need to understand it extremely well before you can rewrite it in a simple form. Looking for more information? Call someone. People are often better at speaking clearly than writing simply – they’ve had more practice. A scientist may write as if they’re submitting a PhD paper, but get them on the phone to explain their research as if a 10 year old had asked. You might just get information you can work with.

Make sure every word is worth it

Have you removed any unnecessary information?

Remember to think from the ‘outside in’ – are you telling the reader what they want to know, rather than what you want to tell them? Do you need to use the name of the project group, explain the structure of your fundraising department, or spell out your strategic priorities? If it’s not content that will inform, inspire or move your audience, leave it out.

Do a swift edit when you’ve finished writing to check for ‘redundant’ words too. For example:

In the period of time between six and seven pm.

In my past experience, I have found that all nurses are kind.

It has been long known that emotional support is vital.

Remember, don’t remove so many words that that your copy is sparse and stilted. If you want to check it sounds natural, read it out loud.

Be straightforward, clear and precise

Are your sentences simple and active? Is it clear what you want the reader to do next?

Use verbs rather than nouns – that’s ‘doing’ words rather than ‘naming’ words. Rather than ‘There was a failure to..’ write ‘We failed to’.

We all know it should be the ‘cat sat on the mat’ not ‘the mat was sat on by the cat’. But the passive voice can easily creep into your writing. Again, read it out loud and check that it’s completely clear who does what.

For example: ‘An information pack will be sent to mid-value registered fundraisers’ leaves me with a lot of questions. Who will send it? How will it be sent? Am I a mid-value fundraiser? If not, how do I register to be one…?!

No one wants to work too hard. Especially if they’re reading something they don’t have to. So if you want them to act on something, you’ll need to make it at as obvious as possible what that action is and how they can do it.

And finally…

When you think your copy is ready to go, it probably isn’t. Give it to someone who works in a different department to you – or, ideally, who doesn’t work with you at all – to read. Ask them to point out anything they think could be clearer.

Remember, there are tools to help – like Grammarly and the Hemmingway App.

They’ll point out jargon, complex sentences and the passive voice. Sadly, they won’t write your copy for you. Yet…


Sarah Myers

copywriter and editor, freelance

Sarah Myers is a copywriter, editorial consultant and creative manager, with more than 20 years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector. She has worked in-house for Mencap and Macmillan Cancer Support, and at a charity copywriting agency. Now freelance, her clients include an extensive range of charities, professional bodies and specialist agencies. Her guide to Storytelling for Impact was published by the Directory of Social Change in 2022.