Simon Porter first trained as a lawyer before pursuing a CELTA. Lately, he’s been advocating for Plain Language in Legal Writing. What he’s learned about how to write has important implications for business English.
Porter recently led a workshop for ELTABB that laid out the elements of writing in Plain English. He also shared how to convince skeptical clients and students why clear writing is so important.
The Search for Strong Writing
Porter spent years proofreading to make legal writing more accessible and comprehensible. For him, it was easy to see when an idea wasn’t being communicated clearly. However, he wanted to figure out how to teach young lawyers how to write more clearly and concisely.
He quickly realized that available writing exercises are often at odds with the communication goals of business and law.
For instance, English exam books focus on passing the test by showing an ability to use a wide range of vocabulary and complex grammar. Business communication, on the other hand, requires only the grammatical structures needed to get the idea across and the vocabulary pertinent to the industry.
Similarly, exam writing may focus on fully informing the reader and even encourage longer discourse. By contrast, business writing prizes brevity and usually centers on a “call to action” for the reader.
When Porter turned to business and legal writing books, the results weren’t much better: they either referenced exams or used examples that didn’t correspond to real-life experience. Above all, the resources Porter found focused on the “what” of writing, but not the “how.”
So, how does one write clearly and concisely? Porter finally found his answer when he came across Plain English.
What is Plain English?
Called Plain English or the Plain Language approach, the basic rules explain how to best communicate your message.
First of all, the reader is the focus: the writer must start by making sure the reader can understand and make decisions based on what they’ve read. This may include formatting that favors headlines and smaller chunks of text instead of large blocks of dense reading.
Simplicity—not complexity—is a hallmark of good writing.
Other guidelines include favoring the active voice over the passive (“we sent the letter” vs “the letter was sent”) and favoring verbs over nouns (“discuss” vs “have a discussion”). Plain Language also encourages reducing unnecessary text, arguing that simplicity—not complexity—is a hallmark of good writing.
Porter acknowledged that it’s not always easy to convince clients that plain language is a better way to write. Thus, he shared some ways to educate clients who think “sophisticated” writing can’t be simple.
Why Plain Language Matters
If you’re an expert in your subject, but you can’t clearly communicate your ideas, then what good are they?
Porter would argue that plain language enables his clients to better share their expertise, and he’s done the research to back it up. In the workshop, Porter shared with us a study by Benson and Kessler that showed the plainer your English is, the more educated you’re perceived to be in your field, and the more persuasive you are.
He noted that evidence-based studies like these are the key to convincing skeptical businesses that this style of writing can be more effective than the “way they’ve always done things.” He also suggests identifying proven benefits to clients; for instance, fully informing customers creates better relations and can even save money when you don’t have to hire a telephone bank to help interpret your poorly written instructions or rules.
“Plain” writing focuses on the most effective way to reach the target.
Porter also points out that many large corporations, especially tech companies, are rewriting their in-house style guides according to plain language guidelines. In fact, governments like the US, UK, and EU are now prioritizing its use. In general, he emphasizes to potential clients how important writing is to business communication.
He also highlights that unclear writing is a problem across all industries for both native and non-native speakers. Rather than impressing clients, “sophisticated” writing often confuses readers while “plain” writing focuses on the most effective way to reach the target.
Shifting the Focus from Reader to Writer
Porter shared with us his own research survey. It critiques a Cambridge study that claimed reading and speaking are the two most important skills in business communication. He noticed that the study didn’t interview employees but rather their bosses, who tend to focus on problems that can be solved in-house.
However, Porter pointed out that it’s unfair to blame employees’ reading skills. When they receive incomprehensible emails, they may ignore what they can’t understand. Reading is really a two-way street between the reader and the writer. Perhaps it’s not reading skills that are at fault, but rather the sender’s writing skills.
70% of employees said that writing was the skill they used most. When asked which skill they’d like training to improve, 95% chose writing over reading.
Porter decided to run his own study and surveyed employees about which skills they thought would be most important before they entered the job market (speaking). He also asked them which skills are the most important now that they’re in the workplace (writing). In fact, almost 70% of employees said that writing was the skill they used most.
When asked which skill they’d like training to improve, 95% chose writing over reading.
How to Teach Plain Writing
After the workshop break, Porter led participants in analyzing some English textbook writing exercises. He helped us see how business writing books fall short when it comes to useful exercises that actually help students learn “how” to write.
He then showed us how to create short and simple practice assignments that address audience, context, formality, and format, rather than testing students on their proofreading, which can easily be left to Grammarly.
We also looked at how adding small, flexible writing exercises to every class can give students skills which more effectively transfer to a business environment. Writing multiple quick emails and instant messages a day is the norm for many employees.
Porter’s workshop was an eye-opener for many participants. It was also a confirmation for those of us who know how essential clear writing is in today’s workplace. He thoroughly impressed us with his research, examples, and robust defense of Plain English writing.
For more about Simon Porter’s work, you can find him on:
- Website – https://writtenlegalenglish.com
- YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/c/writtenlegalenglishpl
- Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/writtenlegalenglish/
- LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/simonporter/
- Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/writtenlegalenglish
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Stephanie Anderson’s tips for professional networking in challenging times.
Stephanie is an English language tutor and writing coach with over 12 years of teaching experience. She recently founded Global Nomad English to offer online customized language and writing coaching to expats and diplomats, who move in social and professional circles that often default to English.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak at ELTABB – I had a great time, although I did feel somewhat daunted staring into the faces of a zoom crowd on Saturday morning!
Thank you for such a generous review of my presentation – I’m glad that I managed to talk and engage your members on a language skill that is underserved when it comes to real-world business needs.
If anyone would like to get in contact about how to change their approach to teaching business writing, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!