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Writing and editing Plain language

Everything we publish should be in plain language, also known as plain English. This means using clear language that all readers can understand.

Research shows that 80% of people prefer sentences written in plain language. This includes expert users with a high level of specialist knowledge. The more complex the issue, the greater the preference for plain language.

Read more in the GDS blog post Clarity is king (opens in a new tab) 

Put users’ needs first

First, identify your users and their needs so that your publication or content can meet those needs.

Think about what your users need to know. You do not need to tell them everything or overwhelm them with information.

Read more about how to identify your users' needs

Frontload your content

Frontload your content, so that the most important information is at the start of each page, section, paragraph and sentence. This is called using an “inverted pyramid”.

User research and analytics show that 80% of users on the ONS website only read the first section of a page. You should structure your content with this in mind so that your main findings and trends are presented at the top of the page.

Read more about structuring content

Be concise

When writing:

  • limit each paragraph to four short sentences
  • stick to one idea or theme per paragraph
  • avoid complicated sentence structures
  • break up large blocks of text with subheadings
  • use bullet points for lists of three or more items

Read more about structuring paragraphs and sentences

Write simply

Do not use formal or long words when easy or short words will do. If you cannot avoid technical terms, explain them in the text or the Glossary. You should also ensure that any acronyms are written out in full for the first use in each section.

Do not use jargon and language that journalists or commentators will need to “translate” into simpler English.

Use consistent language

Use consistent language so that users know what to expect and can absorb information more quickly.

Find out more about words to watch and words not to use

Use the active voice

Always use active verbs and not passive verbs. This is sometimes known as the "active voice" and makes sentences shorter and clearer.

Active verbs are when the sentence’s subject does something. Passive verbs are when the sentence’s subject has something done to it. In the following examples, the subjects are the policy and the study respectively.

"The policy encourages firms to…" not "Firms are encouraged by the policy to…"

"The study shows a trend" not "A trend is shown by the study"

However, write “It is expected”, rather than “One expects”. Using “one” is considered old-fashioned and we refer to ourselves at ONS as “we”.

Be clear

Sentences that can be read in several different ways may be misleading.

“Taylor worked on the development stage of the project and is now part of the policy group with responsibility for legislation.”

The sentence reads as though the policy group is responsible for legislation. In fact, it is Taylor.

It should read:

“Taylor worked on the development stage of the project and is now part of the policy group, where she has responsibility for legislation.”

Make sure that there is no ambiguity in your writing, and that your meaning is clear.

Editing tools

Hemingway Editor (opens in a new tab)  is an online tool that gives your writing a readability grade. It will report on its complexity and make suggestions for improvements.

Do not paste sensitive information or unpublished data into Hemingway – it is a security risk. Instead, use the Flesch-Kincaid reading level tool in Microsoft (opens in a new tab) 

You could use Hemingway retrospectively to look at your last bulletin or article and see how you could improve your writing in the future.

Hemingway Editor performs best with Google Chrome.