We had a chap from the Plain English Campaign in the office last week giving us training on our use of language in written communication. The original idea was just to train the consultancy team but it was extended to include the product development team as well. We are a jargon rich office. The consultants use it about potential contaminants and flood risks, and write mainly for a legal audience. We, the product development team, use programming/technical infrastructure jargon. We are all a good audience for this content.

The last time I was taught anything about written communication was several years ago. And at school I think I learnt more grammar in French lessons than I ever did in English. During the exercises, our resident Spaniard was the only person to get all of the apostrophe questions correct. I think that says a lot about the level of grammar education we experienced.

What follows are some points for me to remember.

  • Read text out loud to get an idea of flow and word choice.
  • Watch out for use of passive writing and make it more active.
  • Put the agent before the verb where possible. For example “the company said that” rather than “it was said by the company”. This goes hand in hand with using the passive voice.
  • Reduce the use of commas and dashes. The full stop should be the commonest form of punctuation.
  • Don’t use e.g., i.e., or etc. They break up the flow of the writing. Use “for example” and “and so on” instead.
  • Don’t be afraid to use got, get, or getting. They are perfectly good words that schooling tends to remove from our vocabulary.
  • Try taking a paragraph and making it into a bulleted list before turning it back into a paragraph. This will cut the waffle and help the ideas be communicated more clearly.

There are some good and free guides on the Plain English Campaign’s website which cover much of the content of our training and are well worth a look. Especially handy is the A-Z of alternative words which offers suggestions on how to avoid dusty/overly-formal words. The Campaign also offers face to face training and online courses.

Earlier this week I spotted that Stanford are offering an online Science Writing course starting in September. Although being a science writer is a very specific skill the course blurb suggests that the first 4 weeks are more general purpose:

Students from non-science disciplines can benefit from the training provided in the first four weeks (on general principles of effective writing).

I’m in the final week of my current MOOC so this might be the one I choose for Autumn.