Plain English for the web
When writing for the web, use plain English to make your content easy to read by all users. Plain English will also help your page rank higher in search engine results.
Plain English is simple and clear language. It avoids difficult or unusual words, including idioms (turns of phrase), jargon, or technical terms. Most website experts recommend using common words at the lower secondary education level.
For example, here are some plain English alternatives to complex words or phrases:
Complex word or phrase
|occasioned by||caused by, because of|
|you are requested||please|
“Plain language removes barriers between you and your readers. It sets your organization apart from the competition, resulting in increased conversions and loyalty.” – Nielsen Norman Group
Plain English aids everyone
Some people may argue that writing in plain English is “dumbing down content”, but that is simply not true. According to GOV.UK, “Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible”. At St Andrews, we want the smartest students. But we don’t want them to get frustrated spending time figuring out what we’re trying to say.
“Your audience wants easy-to-read content that allows them to get the gist of the message efficiently. No one has ever complained that a text was too easy to understand.” – Nielsen Norman Group
Plain English also helps international users or people who use English as a second language. The St Andrews Strategy aims to increase international recruitment. We can support this by making our website easy to understand by those who use English as a second language.
Most importantly, using plain English makes our website accessible to those who may have reading or other cognitive disabilities. The University is legally required to make our website accessible, but we aim to be inclusive regardless. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) sets the legal standards for accessibility on public websites. The WAI says that text written above the lower secondary education level presents severe obstacles to people with reading disabilities such as dyslexia (see WCAG guidelines). Plain English is also easier to understand for those with autism and those who are hard of hearing (Gov.uk accessibility do’s and don’t’s).
As an added bonus, web pages written in plain English are easy to search for and rank better in search engine results.
Writing at a 9th-grade level
Legally, public organisations, such as the University, must provide online text at a lower secondary education level.
According to GOV.UK, there are about 5,000 “common” words that most children learn to read by the time they are 9 years old. After this, they stop reading the words and learn to recognise their shape. This allows them to read much faster. When text contains longer, complicated words, reading time is slowed down.
“Text beyond the 12th grade reading level requires too much mental effort, even for highly educated people.” – Nielsen Norman Group
How to write in plain English
Replace complicated words with ones in a common 9th-grade vocabulary level. There are online resources which provide examples of words to avoid.
Don’t assume your audience is familiar with jargon or technical terms. It’s better to avoid unusual terms altogether. Where they absolutely must be used, make sure to introduce the term and its meaning the first time it is used on a page.
Examples of jargon to avoid at the University:
- 20-credit module – prospective students won’t understand what this means if they don’t know the Scottish university grading system. It is better to avoid this term or put it into context by explaining how much time per week they will spend in class.
- CAPOD – if an acronym is not commonly known, you should write out the full name followed by the acronym in parentheses the first time it is used on a page. Adding a brief description of what CAPOD does would help readers understand this term even better.
- Faculty – this term can mean different things, especially to those from countries outside the UK. Use “staff” instead.
You should check the readability of your copy on a regular basis. Here are some helpful tools for checking readability:
- Hemingway Editor – shows the reading grade level of your text and suggests how you could make it easier to read.
- Readability Formulas – provides readability scores based on a variety of standardised formulas.
- Microsoft Word – shows readability information for your text and checks for spelling and grammar.
See more free guides for writing in plain English.
Examples of editing for plain English
Here are some examples currently on the University website which are too complicated to read easily.
Human Resources is responsible for supporting the University through the delivery of a comprehensive HR service which develops and adopts relevant people management strategies, provides a range of professional support, information and expert advice consistent with employment legislation and best practice.
Human Resources (HR) supports the University by managing its people and providing professional support, information and advice. HR services stick to employment laws and are based on best practice.
The chief function of the Academic Data Team is to safeguard the integrity of the student record and associated infrastructural academic data including the University’s portfolio of programme of study.
The Academic Data Team protects student records and other academic data, including courses offered by the University.
The Estates Projects section offers a complementary service to that offered by the Maintenance section. In general, the section has the capacity to undertake ‘in-house’ projects of a value of up to £500,000 (excluding VAT and fees). For projects over that amount, or for projects where a particular expertise is not available ‘in-house’ or where the work load demands, an external consultant Architect will be often be appointed.
There is up to £500,000 available for estates projects not related to general maintenance. The University will hire an external consultant architect for projects costing more than £500,000 or where additional expertise is needed.