Mark Morris is Head of Clear English at the Department of Health and a former speechwriter for the Health Secretary.
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.firstname.lastname@example.org
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