In the modern world, with endless platforms, media and messages vying to gain our attention, the art of clear and concise communication has never been more important.
The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) is very aware of effective and concise communication and has over a number of years developed a number of resources instructing and advising readers on the principles of communication. The most famous is the Joint Service Publication (JSP) 101 Defence writing guide. Lessons here can be adapted and incorporated into any organisation or business and the basics are outlined below.
We can start by setting out some fundamental principles of good written communication:
- think about who you are writing to and what you want to achieve;
- use plain English and avoid long or complicated words when short or easy ones are available;
- use active language, not passive. It is usually clearer, more direct and more concise and does not disguise who is doing what. For example, ‘We will decide on your application once we have received your letter’, not ‘Once we have received your letter, a decision will be made on your application’; and ‘We recommend that you…’, not ‘it is recommended that…’;
- avoid technical language and jargon unless you are addressing a specialist audience and even then use it with care;
- use short sentences without multiple sub-clauses. Sentences should usually be no longer than 25 words; and
- you can usually remove a third to a half of what you write in a first draft.
If you do no more than just follow these first principles, your content and communication will be at a higher standard than the majority of web content.
Follow this link to view the whole JSP 101 Defence writing guide as a PDF document.
Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre – Writers’ Handbook
Another excellent resource from the UK MOD is the writers’ handbook. This takes onboard the principles of JSP 101, combining them with the principles of the Plain English Campaign of which the MOD is a corporate member.
They start with the plain English principles, which are:
- plan your work;
- write in a style appropriate for the audience;
- write the information as clearly as possible;
- think how to best present the information; and
- check your work.
The writers' handbook breaks each of these subjects down and goes into great detail and can be viewed online following this link and downloaded as a PDF.
Style guides and consistency - BBC
A lot of large organisations, both private and public sector have available style guides that can emphasise the tone, agreed usage of language to ensure all content creators are meeting a minimum and consistent standard.
One of the biggest challenges for those writing content is agreeing on a standard style. Many words have American or UK spellings, or can have completely different meanings, eg “pants”. Over the last twenty years, more American spellings or language has entered UK mainstream usage, even if not officially sanctioned. You need to decide what your stance is, and stick with it.
An excellent resource to help you is the BBC News style guide. It is a complete A-Z guide on acceptable spellings, style, grammar and punctuation. If it’s good enough for the BBC, it’s good enough for you. BBC News style guide - BBC Website
Writing about ethnicity
This can trip a lot of people up or cause unnecessary stress. The UK Government website has a very useful page explaining how to or how not to describe people or topics from ethnic groups. Writing about ethnicity guidelines – UK Government
Writing about disability
Another concern for many content creators is ensuring any disability issues are correctly covered. Again the Government has a handy style guide. Writing about disability guidelines - UK Government
- The Guardian and Observer style guide - similar to the BBC one and very useful.
- Plain English Campaign – They have numerous resources and free guides to help you.
- Hemmingway App - This is a handy tool that analyses your text to see how readable it is, highlighting any complex wording or sentences that readers may find confusing.
Are there any tips or tricks you can offer any aspiring or struggling content creators? Are you a fan of JSP 101 or any other style guides? Let me know in the comments below.
Happy content creation!