https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2014/02/17/guest-post-clarity-is-king-the-evidence-that-reveals-the-desperate-need-to-re-think-the-way-we-write/

Guest Post: Clarity is king – the evidence that reveals the desperate need to re-think the way we write

Mark Morris is Head of Clear English at the Department of Health and a former speechwriter for the Health Secretary.

Mark Morris - Department of Health

Speech is the mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so he is.

So said Publilius Syrus, about two thousand years ago.  He had a point.

The way we speak, speaks volumes.  Whether someone begins a sentence with, “Mr Speaker…” or ends one with “innit?” tells us a huge amount about who they are, where they’re from and even what they’re doing.  The same goes for the way we write.  Words have power.  Unfortunately, as civil servants we are serial abusers of that power.

A few years ago, Linguistic Landscapes, an independent language consultancy, analysed 6 years of research into how Department of Health documents went down with their intended audiences.

Their report found that too much of our writing was either not understood, greeted with cynicism, found irrelevant or just plain boring.

Only this month, in a response to a consultation on changes to NHS pensions, one pension scheme member said:

This paper is unnecessarily complicated to read and the use of jargon makes it impossible to follow the government’s intentions with this proposal. The application of Plain English would ensure full understanding of the planned changes to NHS pensions.

This, not to put too fine a point on it, is not good.

Across government, our sentences are too long, our words too complex, and our phrases stuffed with management jargon, technical language and acronyms.  It’s enough to bring people out in a rash.

Even if people do understand the words we use, they’re still unlikely to read them.  In 2012, research by Christopher Trudeau at the Thomas M Cooley Law School in Michigan, into the use of language in legal documents found two things, one obvious, the other surprising.

First, when given a choice, 80% of people preferred sentences written in clear English (for example, 97% preferred ‘among other things’ over the more traditional Latin phrase ‘inter alia’) and the more complex the issue, the greater that preference. But second, it found that the more educated the person, the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English.  The old argument (or ‘excuse for lazy writing’) that ‘these readers will understand this language’ may be true, but it doesn’t mean they want to read it.  Do you?

Remember this: those with the highest literacy levels and the greatest expertise tend to have the most to read.  They just don’t have the time to wade through reams of dry, complicated prose.  This is supported by some 2012 research by Ipsos MORI for the Department of Health.  One person said:

If the target is to increasingly be frontline clinicians, they’ve got to be realistic in what they expect those people to have time to go through.  [What they write] needs to have greater brevity and clarity and will need to be more succinct.

As civil servants, we have a reputation for incomprehensible writing.  But in five years of running speech writing and clear English training courses, I have found that fault lies less with people’s ability, more with the pressure – perceived or real – to conform to a supposed ‘civil service style’.  We become institutionalised.  Yet when given the right support, the permission and the clear expectation that they should write clearly, they do.

That’s what we’re looking to do in the Department of Health.  We’re looking at everything from recruitment and induction to better policy making and annual review. We’re also creating a range of online training resources, all available in one place and drawing on best practice from across government.  These will cover everything from how to use an apostrophe to how to answer a Parliamentary question.

In work, we write so we can do something.  If you want your writing to achieve its goal, then do all you can to make life easy for your reader.  Keep it short, avoid unnecessary technical language and use clear, simple words.  It will increase your chances of being read and understood rather than skimmed or binned.

If your organisation has developed good ways of improving the quality of writing, do get in touch.  If we share our expertise and experience, we can all get better together.

If you have questions or comments, please drop Mark a line: Mark.morris@dh.gsi.gov.uk

Continue the conversation on Twitter @GDSTeam, and don't forget to sign up for email alerts.


You may also be interested in:

Rewriting policy plainly

Writing simply: languages choices for the GOV.UK navigation

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24 comments

  1. James Coltham

    Excellent article, Mark. I've just joined NHS Health Scotland as their Web Content Manager and understandably we're facing these same challenges - to take very complex, technical content and make it fit both for the web and our various audiences. The evidence that even highly-educated professionals want Plain English is especially compelling.

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  2. Jordan Hatch

    Hey, Mark! Will the Department of Health be publishing the training resources they create in public, so that other organisations across government will be able to make use of them too?

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    • Mark Morris

      Jordan, once they are in a decent shape, I very much hope they will be available for everyone. I'm filming a series of very short videos on everything from 'What is clear English' to 'How to use an apostrophe'. Each will have a summary and short quiz where appropriate. I also want to add links to good online resources. Personally, I love Grammar Girl [http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl].

      Watch this space!

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  3. simonfj

    That was nice,

    Although we're still working on a pretty institutionalized basis.

    "That’s what we’re looking to do in the Department of Health". So will every department of Local and National Gov. "We’re also creating a range of online training resources, all available in one place". So will every department .......... " we will drawing on best practice from across government ". So .....

    The intent is terrific. It's in the way that the we go about "delivering" this or any education these days. It's changed. These days it's about "sharing" an education, when its needed. The old approach - aggregate a bunch of resources in one spot and compare silos' work routines - doesn't work so well, especially if we want to take advantage of modern comms technology. That's why you see most R&E institutions placing the emphasis on the professional groups which span their silos.

    There's a good reason why (e.g.) LinkedIn in so successful. Discussions there always revolve around hubs of experts (and students) discussing subject matters related their role or job. The most interesting and most attended are run by professional associations who span global silos. They operate, much like these blogs; where people point at a blog post or create a discussion which points to a few.

    The problem then, and this is being addressed, is how do people find the right space/virtual room for their professional group so they can ask a question, have a discussion, or read something which relates to their inquiry. This space will include real time communication, so groups can conference, & share the construction or editing of the same 'doc' (a la the wiki model).

    This new approach relates to what I wrote previously about "context", and putting the spec for GDS' virtual lab before the physical one. The 'All gov.uk blog' list, and particularly this GDS blog with its "select category" list, is just one beginning of the group-centric approach.

    Another one is here https://gcn.civilservice.gov.uk/community/ . It has a more detailed category drop-down list, which is decidedly cross-institutional. The two categorization approaches must align. They must point to the same combination of blogs, forums, materials, etc.

    The only question then is "are they to be open rooms, or closed". I'll leave it to every reader to question why every R&E institution talks about "open research/education." They are preparing students for open government. It just can't be seen yet.

    Perhaps we should have a blog post about the last line of the gcn community page.
    "If you have any questions about membership and your ELIGIBILITY to join, email us".

    PS. I can't overcome my editor's instinct. "Secondly, research has found that the more educated a person and the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English".

    Thank you Mark. My rash is fading.

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    • Mark Morris

      Simon,

      Sorry, you lost me there a bit. But on the cross-government sharing, I completely agree. That's why blogs like this one are so great. People from across government read them and those of a similar bent can join forces and bring the change.

      As for the error, quite right. Wrist slapped and now corrected.

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  4. Malcolm Green

    Mark, after 40 years in the NHS, including a year at the DoH, I agree strongly with all you say. I sometimes used to amuse myself in Trust Board meetings by seeing how many words in a DoH document I could cross out without changing the meaning. It was usually 20-30%. And I could often increase this to 40-50% by changing words round a bit.
    Sadly I could not understand the comment above from Simonfj: what are "group-centric approaches","right space/virtual room", "two categorisation processes must align", and even "real-time communication". Simon, you gave me a rash!
    Government and organisations are still bedeviled by the "never use 2 words when 5 will do" approach to writing.
    I congratulate you Mark on your initiative and hope it succeeds.

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  5. Lee Crooks

    Good article - food for thought. 'Nuff said 🙂

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  6. Duncan

    (Poor) managers tend to judge how much work their staff have done by how long their document is - even though it usually takes more effort to write something short and understandable. The same managers also think that unless a document is stuffed with jargon and important-sounding words then it can't be serious.

    Since people who value their jobs write in the style their manager wants, rather than the end reader the result is inevitable.

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    • Mark Morris

      Duncan, sad but true. But I've run enough training courses over the years to see that too often the fault lies not with the individual but with the institution. People start work well able to string a decent sentence together but that ability is slowly crushed. Then, when they become a manager, they do the crushing. It helps nobody. It undermines our work. It has to stop!

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  7. Huw

    I think I remember President Bush (Jnr) saying that he had never read a document longer than one page long - and people laughing at him because they felt this was a reflection on his intelligence. Rather, good on the staff who drafted memos for him. Explaining everything he needed to know, and explaining what he needed to do, concisely and clearly (I suppose).

    You'd all have opinion on the conseqences of him reading the document ... but that's another story

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  8. Mark Morris

    I entirely agree. Clear English, for me, is less about the words on the page that the thoughts in your head. Only if you are crystal clear about what you want a document to achieve can you begin to write. Fuzzy thinking leads inevitably to poor writing.

    Think how much more productive our Ministers and civil servants could be if we thought more and wrote less.

    I heard once that because David Blunkett preferred to listen to his briefing rather than have it translated and printed in braille, it forced people to produce incredibly short, succinct briefing for him. Brilliant!

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  9. simonfj

    Sorry Mark, Malcolm,

    This goes back to the change, and discussions, that happened back in January when the GDS blog was moved from gds.cabinetoffice to this new place. The day the Vogons demolished my home sweet home. https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2014/01/16/a-new-home-for-the-gds-blog/

    Yes, there is a desperate need to re-think the way we write. There's just as much need to re-think where the writing is put. It's nice to see someone from outside the GDS teams being invited to write a guest post. But it has a pretty limited distribution. Mark's post would be welcome on any of these blogs. https://blog.gov.uk/

    So when I was talking about "categorization", what I was getting at is how, if I was interested in "how to use an apostrophe", I would know where to go to find it, if I knew it existed, and have an online conversation with the community which would be drawn to the video, maybe via a video conference/class.

    Things we're so much easier in the pre-Jan days (for me), when the world revolved around just the GDS cabinet-approved blog. We got to know the teams/groups and what they were doing - inclusion, IA, Engagement, etc. Now you're lucky if you can figure out what teams are there. There's not even an introduction to them on this page. https://gds.blog.gov.uk/about/

    So the only way a newbie might pick up what the GDS teams have been doing over the past 212 days has to be surmised from that drop down box (scroll up this page, under "What we do"). Now it's just a dog's breakfast of what used to be contextual posts (in a cabinetoffice context).

    Write as beautifully as you like. It's not much use if your audience doesn't know where to find you and your professional team/buddies. Until we get something like groups.gov.uk, which has a directory to all the special teams/groups, all we end up talking to are people who Carrie found and put on the mailing list. i.e. the converted. Youse no; da wons hoo kn rit proper loik.

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    • Mark Morris

      Simonfj,
      Ah, I'm with you now. Although I think I'll leave that one to the good people of GDS to respond to!

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  10. Matt

    As well as writing clearer government needs to write LESS. We need to be more ruthless with our content and cut out the unneeded or repeated detail (or at least provide it only as supplementary information).

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  11. YbJ

    Let's not forget Sir Ernest Gowers's 'Plain Words' (1948) and 'The ABC of Plain Words' (1951) later 'The Complete Plain Words', written at the request of the Treasury and especially a quote in its prologue by the historian G M Young "the final cause of speech is to get an idea as exactly as possible out of one mind into another." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Complete_Plain_Words

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    • Mark Morris

      YbJ, Gowers is a legend. I had a quote of his on every slide of a speechwriting course I used to run: "Be short, be clear, be human". Stick to that and you'll not go far wrong.

      I'd also recommend a read of Orwell's essay, 'Politics and the English language', freely available online. His questions for a scrupulous writer are close to perfection.

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  12. YbJ

    Yes Mark, thanks.

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  13. Mark Morris

    I've just written a new piece on the Digital Health blog. It has all sorts of help and advice on how to write more clearly. http://bit.ly/1hPX5Cy Hope you enjoy it!

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  14. Matt

    Here in Suffolk we are about to undertake a whole project of content renewal - exciting but daunting at the same time. It's that same feeling I have when clearing out the garage... "hmmm, where to start."

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  15. serge

    Nice piece of content Mark, Keep it up thumbs up

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  16. Amanda Booth

    Really good article Mark; I couldn't agree with you more!

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  17. John Sutcliffe

    I agree with comment about writing less, although writing less can take longer.

    As Mark Twain said:

    “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

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