Using plain English

Gilbert Yates, June 9 2016

If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

Ernest Hemingway

I recently joined the web team and have been working on some sites and pages with content from across the council and its partners. My job involves presenting often complicated information in a simple way so that people have the information they need to do their jobs. In a recent study looking at readability on government websites, Hampshire County Council ranked top. 92% of the sites looked at in the study failed to meet accepted standards.

In this post I wanted to talk a bit about what we do to make sure the information on our site is clear and easy to follow for the public, staff and partners.

Making things simple

When explaining a process as an expert, it is easy to write content that is understandable only to yourself and your colleagues. You might use terms which have an obvious meaning to yourself, but are not clear to someone who doesn’t work in the same area. Reading it back, it may make perfect sense to you, but your users still don’t understand.

If you know enough to say it’s correct, you know too much to say it’s clear

The GDS Blog

Part of a web editor’s role is taking content provided by services and putting it into plain English. We pick up when sentences are not clear or when the writing obscures the point to the text. We remove jargon, buzzwords and unnecessary wording, without diluting the meaning.

The editing process is iterative, re-reading, editing and re-editing.

Having a web editor read and edit your content is a benefit. As we don’t have a detailed knowledge of the information included in the content, we will approach it as a person reading it for the first time. We will ask you if we don’t understand. Only once we ‘get’ the process can we present it in a way so that others can understand.

The style guide

Like most websites we have a style guide that provides some clear guidance on what we need to do to ensure information is readable for everyone. Three key points are:

The use of plain English

Plain English is a way of writing which avoids jargon and meaningless text. Easy to read English makes pages quicker to read or skim. This makes finding relevant information faster.

The importance of the active voice

Sentences written in the active voice are less wordy than those in the passive voice. Removing passive wording improves a piece of writing. I have been working on the staff pages full of instructions for the reader. On these pages, the active voice is more important.

The use of concise sentences

A longer sentence can have confusing clauses and tenses and is more difficult to understand. It is good practice to keep sentences to 25 words or fewer. Breaking up longer sentences will increase the speed people read. It also makes text easier to understand. It is better to use easy short alternatives to longer words where possible. Using the active voice and plain English will contribute to writing more concise sentences.


The website Hemingway is one of the tools we can use to measure how easy information is to read. Hemingway analyses the text on a page and highlights uses of passive voice and long, complicated sentences. It will suggest when you can use a simpler word, and when you have used adverbs. Hemingway gives your writing a readability rating, we aim for a reading age of 9.

Hemingway flags up complicated sentences, the passive voice and unnecessary adverbs:

Hemigway flags difficult text with colours to show where improvements can be made. Hemingway flags difficult text with colours to show where improvements can be made.

After editing using Hemingway, the meaning is kept but the text is easier to read:

A sample of text cleaned using Hemingway for guidance A sample of text cleaned using Hemingway for guidance

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