Plain writing (aka, plain language and plain English) is simply another term for clear and concise writing, something writing instructors have been trying to instill in their students for literally centuries. Plain Writing has a number of definitions. One good one is: “A communication is in plain writing if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can readily find what they need, understand it, and use it.” But Albert Einstein—a plain writing master long before the term was coined—made a keen observation that applies to writing and just about every other human endeavor: “Any fool can make things bigger and more complex, but it takes a touch of genius to go in the other direction.”
Put one space after each sentence when using proportionally-spaced fonts, which means just about every font found on a computer including the one on this webpage (notice that an i takes up less than half the character-space width of an m). Put two spaces after sentences when using mono-spaced fonts, such as Courier New and those found on a typewriter. With mono-spaced fonts, an i takes up the exact same character-space width as an m. Reading documents written with mono-spaced fonts becomes, well, monotonous, so someone long ago decided to put two spaces at the end of each sentence to make it more readable and to act as an “eye rest.” It’s hard for some people to make this change because they’ve been putting two spaces at the end of a sentence forever. But if you need final proof of this rule, open any book, newspaper or magazine: you’ll find only one space at the end of each sentence.
Many scholars think so. Without it, the history of the world would be drastically different. The alphabet was invented in Egypt around 2000 B.C. as a writing method to show the sounds of words. Its earliest readers read aloud and reading aloud continued to be the standard practice throughout ancient and medieval times. About 26 major alphabetic scripts are used worldwide. The English alphabet was handed down to us from the Romans (who only had 23 letters in their alphabet; it did not have a J, V, or W). Today, the English alphabet is the most popular script in the world, used by about 100 principal languages, 120 countries and nearly 2 billion people. Because an alphabet is so easy to learn, it became the vehicle of mass literacy, starting with the Egyptians back in 2000 B.C. It allowed farmers, shopkeepers and others of the humblest origins to read and write and, therefore, attain skills and knowledge that improved their lives.
T.S. Eliot once said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” The English language was following that dictum centuries before Eliot was born. No fewer than 600,000 words have been used in English writing since the twelfth century. So where did they all come from? We, that is, English speakers since the dawn of the language, were very good at stealing them. For example, alcohol and alkali are from Arabic, amok from Malay, bizarre from Basque, okay from West Africa, taboo from Tahitian, and the list goes on and on and on. In 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary‘s latest update added 1,400 new words to the language, from bongga (Tagalog for impressive, excellent or stylish) to belly-bumper (a U.S. term for a head-first ride down a hill on a sled, though it was also used in the 17th century to denote a Rabelaisian womanizer). The English language is a living, constantly expanding organism—and how fun it is to watch it grow!
Even the best writers make mistakes. It’s part of the writing process. To discover your errors, read everything you write out loud. You will “hear” the mistakes. And read everything you write from your audience’s point of view; this is often difficult to do (because it’s hard to gauge what your audience knows and doesn’t know about your topic), but practice makes perfect.
When corresponding with customers and executives, keep it professional. Professional writing is formal—no clipped sentences, no jokes, no slang, etc.—yet has a friendly, conversational tone. To achieve a professional, friendly tone, role play as a journalist for a high-end publication while writing. Think of your business document as more of an article in The Wall Street Journal.
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh
Because acronyms are read and function as regular words, they are rarely preceded by an article—a, an, or the—in a sentence. However, when they are preceded by an article, choosing a, an, or the depends on how the sentence would sound when read aloud. For example:
“When NATO asked NASA to form a committee, a WHO director became chairperson.”
Because initialisms are read as a string of letters, they often take a, an, or the. For example:
“An MIT graduate was required to take a writing test at the FDA office.”
It’s actually quite simple: technical writing has technical content. That’s the bottomline. Your approach to technical writing should be the same approach you take to non-technical writing. Here is the “Checklist of the Writing Process” from the opening pages of the Handbook of Technical Writing: Establish your purpose, identify your audience, brainstorm, conduct research, outline your notes and ideas, adopt the appropriate style and tone, construct effective paragraphs. The list goes on, but it sounds familiar, right? That’s because it’s the same one you’ll find in any high school or college writing textbook. One problem with technical writing is that too many novice technical writers think that because technical subject matter is complicated, that writing about it should also be complicated. Not so. Don’t overcomplicate the skill of technical writing by thinking it’s complicated.
During an interview, professional business writer Marcus Buckingham said, “I don’t think about rules at all [while writing]. Split infinitives and so forth? I split infinitives all the time. I don’t care much about that stuff. I try to write aggressively, with purpose.”
Research backs up this approach. Mike Rose, Professor of Education at UCLA, came to this conclusion about the composing process of freshmen college students:
“There lies the irony. Students that offer the least precise rules and plans have the least trouble composing. The five students who experienced blocking were all operating either with writing rules or with planning strategies that impeded rather than enhanced the composing process. The five students who were not hampered by writer’s block also utilized rules, but they were… few and functional… less rigid ones.”
Professional writers only keep a handful of pragmatic, easy-to-apply rules in their heads while writing, such as, “Is what I just wrote clear?” “Does this idea logically flow from my previous idea?” “Can I write this more simply?” You should do the same.