Why simple doesn’t mean bland. And why complicated might just lose you the sale.

[Image courtesy of Pete O’Shea at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer about whether plain English means bland English. He had very strong views on the matter, saying that plain meant boring – which killed creativity. I was not entirely convinced. For maybe plain (with negative overtones) is just another word for clear (with positive ones). And when it comes to copywriting, clearer is always better. The starting point for the debate was the Plain English Campaign, an organisation that’s been ‘campaigning for crystal-clear English since 1979’. They serve up brickbats and bouquets (if that’s not too clichéd a term) ever year to both state and private-sector organisations based on the quality of their written output. Their website, as you can imagine, is a fascinating read. And if you’re a fan of telling it like it is, and a hater of the hackneyed, you’ll love it. It’s a grammar geek’s sweet shop, full of unexpected pleasures and new discoveries. Their PDF guide has some common-sense tips that every writer should take on board:
  • Keep your sentences short
  • Prefer active verbs
  • Use ‘you’ and ‘we’
  • Use words that are appropriate for the reader
  • Don’t be afraid to give instructions
  • Avoid nominalisations
  • Use lists where appropriate
In fact, most of those things I’ve advocated over the years on this blog (well, all except the one about nominalisations: turning a verb such as complete into a noun – completion). Their suggestions for alternative everyday words (change instead of adjustment, allowed instead of admissible, total instead of aggregate) seem to chime with the first law of copywriting: write how you speak. They also say that plain English is not about ‘the cat sat on the mat’ school of writing, or about banning words. Just as well.

Style and substance

So what is it about? Well at its simplest, it’s about writing copy that people will read. About connecting with your audience in a language that they can understand and relate to. Which brings us back to the the discussion – or heated debate – I had about whether plain English cramps style and kills creativity. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit of a non-issue. For creativity is not about using long words and convoluted expressions. It’s about a lightness of touch and a lack of self-importance. About doing more with less, and creating an impression rather than labouring every brush-stroke. It’s as much about the gaps between the words as the words themselves. And it’s about originality, which doesn’t need polysyllables. All you have to do is take some well-known taglines, throw away the Plain English Campaign guidelines and see what happens. Every little helps (Tesco) becomes individual actions contribute to the overall good. And you’re done (once used by Amazon) becomes you have accomplished what you set out to do. And Yes you can (you know who) becomes It is possible for you to achieve your goals. Bigger, better and more effective? No. Just plodding and pedestrian, and full of self importance. So next time you’re writing and feel yourself coming over all serious, remember the simple advice of the Plain English Campaign. It won’t cramp your style, and it won’t kill your creativity. And it might just win you a new client. And that, in the end, is all that matters. Find out more: