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Writing for the web

Writing in plain English

Writing in plain English means using words that are familiar to our audience. It means avoiding jargon, abbreviations and metaphors. Writing in plain English will improve the accessibility of your content.

Writing in plain English is not dumbing down, it is opening up. It reflects the open and inclusive education we offer.

Our users may:

  • Be stressed
  • Be multi-tasking
  • Be physically or mentally disabled
  • Not have English as their first language

No one should have to struggle to understand us.

You can find out more about writing in plain English from the Plain English Campaign.

The rest of this page gives practical guidance and examples of how you can write in plain English.

Abbreviations

Avoid using abbreviations.

Using abbreviations can increase the cognitive load on readers. This can slow down their reading and make your writing harder to understand.

Using abbreviations assumes that readers will know what they refer to - this is not always the case.

Do not use 'eg', 'ie' or 'etc'.

These are abbreviations of Latin phrases. These may not be familiar to all readers and will be a barrier to them understanding your writing.

Instead use phrases like 'for example', 'that is' or 'and so on'.

For example:

✔ Make sure you have completed your pre-arrival requirements (such as online enrolment)

✘ Make sure you have completed your pre-arrival requirements (e.g. online enrolment)

✔ Mobile devices including iPhones, iPads and tablets.

✘ Mobile devices - iPhones, iPads, tablets etc.

Find out more on this blog from Inside GOV.UK

Acronyms

Write out in full the meaning of any acronyms or initialisms the first time you use them on a page.

For example:

  • UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service)
  • IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Services)
  • Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)
  • Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP)

Adverbs

Avoid using adverbs.

Adverbs often make writing seem timid. At York St John University we are confident in what we do.

For example:

✔ Our Wellbeing team will support you during your time with us.

✘ Our Wellbeing team will completely support you during your time with us.

Read more in this article from Stephen King on Writing, Fear, and the Atrocity of Adverbs.

Contractions

Do not use negative or conditional contractions. Avoid using other forms of contraction.

Negative contractions (like 'shouldn't') and conditional contractions (like 'should've') are harder for people to understand than when the words are written out in full.

There is no current research on positive contractions (such as 'you'll') or possessive contractions (such as 'the University's') but for the same reason we suggest avoiding them.

It is nearly always possible to rewrite a sentence to remove the contractions.

For example:

✔ You might have received an email from us. 

✘ You might've received an email from us.

You can read more about the impact of contractions on readability on Readability Guidelines.

Jargon, idioms and expressions

Avoid using jargon, idioms and expressions.

Language can exclude readers. Using jargon, idioms and expressions can make your content inaccessible to some users.

If you have to use jargon explain its meaning to the reader.

If people cannot find the information they are looking for then they will seek it elsewhere. If we are the only source of this information and our users cannot understand it, then we have let our users down.

For example:

✘ Applying for university can be easier said than done

✔ Applying for university can be harder than you expect

✘ It is a Palladian style stone building.

✔ It is a Palladian style stone building. Palladian style architectural features include columns, symmetry and decorative arches.

Read more about why to avoid jargon, idioms and expressions on the Canadian Government content style guide (skip to part 2.5.)

Metaphors and similies

Avoid using metaphors and similes.

The use of metaphors and similes excludes readers and slows reading comprehension. We should not assume our readers will understand even the most common metaphors.

For example:

✘ If you want practical experience and academic expertise this course offers the best of both worlds.

✔ This course offers you practical experience and academic expertise.