Principles of plain English writing
One of the world’s most famous and successful investors is an advocate of plain English writing. His name: Warren Buffett. Here are his top tips.
I first became aware of Buffett’s position when I read his preface to a document called A Plain English Handbook: How to create clear SEC documents, in which he covers some of the principles of plain English writing, including this useful piece of advice:
“Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.”
Right there, in one paragraph, Mr. Buffett has captured the essence of plain English. He makes three key points, all central to the idea of plain English writing:
"Inflated words add little value; buzzwords even less. Stick to words used in everyday conversation."
1. Keep in mind the needs of your target audience
2. Reject jargon and write in plain language
3. Write to inform not to impress
I then read some of Warren Buffet’s annual reports and found them to be unlike any other financial documents I’ve read; in fact, you can learn a lot about plain English copywriting just by reading them.
If you want to write like Warren, follow these tips.
Use personal pronouns (I, we, you, us)
Referring to your company as ‘we’ or ‘us’ and your readers as ‘you’ will give your document a more pleasing tone and allow you to express yourself vividly. People also respond more positively when addressed personally.
Want more articles like this? Check out the business writing section.
Write short sentences
Aim for an average of 15-20 words per sentence. Make only one or two points per sentence. Keep your paragraphs short, too.
Write in the active voice
An active sentence typically has a subject (the doer) performing an action: ‘We sent the report last week’. A passive sentence is the opposite and often obscures the doer: ‘The report was sent last week’. Studies indicate that documents written in the active voice are easier to read and understand.
Use verbs not nouns
Verbs add vigour and life to your writing. Don’t change your verbs into a noun to describe an action. For example, use ‘consider’ not ‘consideration’, ‘appoint’ instead of ‘appointment’ and ‘notify’ rather than ‘notification’. Sticking with verbs will also make you write in the active voice. Note the ‘-ion’ ending to those words; that’s a sure sign you are using the passive tone.
Be economical with words
Use only as many words as you need to. For example use ‘now’ instead of ‘at this present time’ and ‘for’ instead of ‘on behalf of’. Also get rid of unnecessary words that are used habitually or to make a mundane task sound more impressive. For example ‘A new bank account is in the process of being set up’ can be shortened to ‘A new bank account is being set up.’
Use expressions and words familiar to your audience
Inflated words add little value; buzzwords even less. Stick to words used in everyday conversation. For example ‘stop’ not ‘terminate’ and ‘pay’ not ‘remuneration’.
Copy that’s free of corporatese
I love Warren Buffett’s writing. It’s straightforward, to the point and refreshingly free of corporate mumbo-jumbo. It’s no accident his messages come through loud and clear.
It’s a pity his approach is not widespread. If writing plainly is good enough for Warren Buffett, it’s good enough for anyone. The benefits of plain English are proven, and, as he says, “[when you write in plain English] you will be amazed at how much smarter your readers will think you have become”.
Do you have any other tips for plain English writing? Please share them below.