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7 rules for writing in plain english

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How do you begin to present your research findings outside of the academic community? This presentation is for researchers who face a blank sheet of paper whenever they try to rewrite their research findings to audiences outside of their academic community. The 7 rules for writing in plain English are:
1. Keep your sentences short
2. Prefer active verbs
3. Use 'you' and 'we'
4. Avoid jargon: use words that are appropriate for the reader
5. Don't be afraid to give instructions
6. Avoid nominalisations
7. Use lists where appropriate

Published in: Government & Nonprofit
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7 rules for writing in plain english

  1. 1. 7 rules for writing in Plain English Dr Nilam Ashra-McGrath, Research Uptake Manager, COMDIS-HSD
  2. 2. You can apply plain English techniques to the following types of documents:  Reports  Case studies or ‘stories of change’  Abstracts for journals and conferences  Research briefings: 2-4 pages, key facts about the project, good for website  Journal papers  Policy briefing: key findings, conclusions and recommendations to government agencies      
  3. 3. Using plain English techniques will help you:  be more confident about writing concise and relevant information about work in progress or project findings  be able to produce work that is coherent, not rambling  use non-academic/jargon free language to say what you mean  if you are lucky, enjoy writing!
  4. 4. Plain English is... “...a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise” Source: How to write in plain English, www.plainenglish.co.uk
  5. 5. What is plain English?  It’s not about ‘dumbing down’ your research, it’s about making things clear  It gets rid of jargon and clutter  It makes the text clean, so that it sparkles  Advantages:  Faster to write  Faster to read  Get your message across in an easier and friendlier way Source: How to write in plain English, www.plainenglish.co.uk
  6. 6. 7 rules of plain English 1. Keep your sentences short 2. Prefer active verbs 3. Use ‘you’ and ‘we’ 4. Avoid jargon (use words that are appropriate for the reader) 5. Don’t be afraid to give instructions 6. Avoid nominalisations 7. Use lists where appropriate Adapted from: How to write in plain English, www.plainenglish.co.uk
  7. 7. Sentence structure  Sentences should be 15-20 words long  Sentences should be Vary the length  Sentences should have 1 idea per sentence  Most long sentences can be broken up  Use everyday language to help you find ways to break up the sentence Source: How to write in plain English, www.plainenglish.co.uk
  8. 8. Example: sentence structure ORIGINAL TEXT: Where possible, we include patients and community members as participants and advisors within our operational research recognizing the importance of understanding patient and community views and experiences and building accountability within the health services. 3 ALTERNATIVES USING PLAIN ENGLISH: Where possible, we include patients and community members in our operational research. We believe this helps build accountability within health services. We recognize the importance of understanding patient and community views and experiences.
  9. 9. Example: sentence structure ORIGINAL TEXT: Furthermore, this study can explore various factors through higher level statistical analysis such as logistic regression analysis mainly to measure the main predictors of knowledge (at least 3 danger signs) about danger sign during pregnancy, current practice of early marriage and incidents of violence within community. PLAIN ENGLISH VERSION: Furthermore, this study can explore various factors through higher level statistical analysis such as logistic regression analysis. This type of analysis is used mainly to measure the main predictors of knowledge. There are at least 3 danger signs, these are: 1) danger sign during pregnancy; 2) current practice of early marriage; and 3) incidents of violence within community.
  10. 10.  Turning passive sentences into active sentences means changing the structure  3 main parts to almost every sentence: 1. Subject (the person or thing doing the action) 2. Verb (the action, the ‘doing’ word) 3. Object (the person or thing that the action is done to) Prefer active verbs
  11. 11. Active sentences are ordered like this: subject then verb then object object then verb then subject Passive sentences are ordered like this: Nilam delivered a workshop Nilam watched television The workshop was delivered by Nilam The television was watched by Nilam
  12. 12. Examples of passive and active sentences:  Monitoring and supervision visits were made by the researchers  Researchers made monitoring and supervision visits  Co-ordination meetings had been held by the district and cluster supervisors with the respective District Development Committee (DDC)  The district and cluster supervisors held coordination meetings with their District Development Committees (DDCs) Who does what? ACTIVE SENTENCE What is done by who? PASSIVE SENTENCE
  13. 13. More examples of passive and active sentences  The coop was initiated by the villagers…  The villagers started the coop…  It was decided by the governor that the assistance to the project was to be suspended  The governor suspended the project
  14. 14. Now you try....example 1  The quality of care of these patients is to be improved by use of evidence-based guides and tools  Evidence-based guides and tools will improve the quality of care for patients  Evidence-based guides and tools will improve patient care  Evidence-based guides and tools will improve the quality of patient care
  15. 15. Now you try...example 2 Research was conducted by the COMDIS-HSD China team, between July and November 2012, in coordination with the provisional Centres for Disease Control COMDIS-HSD China and the Centres for Disease Control conducted the research between July and November 2012 COMDIS-HSD China and the Centres for Disease Control conducted the research for 5 months
  16. 16. Use ‘you’ and ‘we’ HERD has established a functional partnership with the state and non-state sectors, local government including community groups who are in need of services thus creating appropriate balance of demand and supply of services. We have established functional partnerships with the state and non-state sectors, including local government and community groups. We believe this creates an appropriate balance of demand and supply of services.
  17. 17. Avoid jargon: what is jargon?  Special language used in business, medicine, science, government and development work Useful for specialist audience Not useful for wider audience  Uses long, impressive-sounding words Say exactly what you mean  Uses several words instead of one Use the simplest words that fit  Makes the message harder to understand
  18. 18. Using plain English to get jargon out of your sentences  On average, among adults, total food intake was higher for males than for females  On average, men ate more than women  Obesity is a significant factor contributing to the incidence of coronary disease  Overweight people tend to have heart problems  The significant increment in income was observed due to HERD's capacity in generating funds from various sources  HERD increased it’s income by funding from x, y, z.
  19. 19. Don’t be afraid to give instructions The results of health check tests and examinations should be given by the doctor to the patient verbally and in written form Doctors should tell the patients their test results. They should also put the results in writing. A comprehensive case management guideline for family doctors in the China context has been developed, piloted and extensively revised, and is available to download online at www.comdis-hsd.leeds.ac.uk We have developed comprehensive case management guidelines for family doctors in China. You can download this at www.comdis-hsd.leeds.ac.uk
  20. 20. Avoid nominalisations  Nominalisation = the name of something that isn’t a physical object, eg a process, technique or emotion  They are formed from verbs (‘doing’ words)  Nominalisations are often used instead of verbs  Too many nominalisations makes writing very long and dull, especially in passive sentences
  21. 21. Verb Nominalisation Complete Completion Introduce Introduction Provide Provision Fail Failure Arrange Arrangement Investigate Investigation Expand Expansion Discuss Discussion Implement Implementation Collect Collection Verify Verification
  22. 22. Change these nominalisations: The core research team of HERD had made onsite verification of the data HERD researchers verified the data There was provision of immunization and family planning services from the nearby clinic The nearby clinic provides immunization and family planning services The overall evaluation objective was to assess the implementation processes of FP/EPI integration The objective was to assess the FP/EPI integration process
  23. 23. Use lists where appropriate  Lists, numbers and headings are your friends!  They help tidy up your text and signpost the reader  They help present findings in a clear way  Remember to use digits for all numbers and percentages  You can change the rules of grammar if it makes the sentence flow better Source: How to write in plain English, www.plainenglish.co.uk
  24. 24. Examples of when to use numbers One third respondents were Brahmin and Chettri. 33% were Brahmin and Chettri Ninety-seven percent of parents were currently married. 97% of parents were married Every four in ten men consumed alcohol 40% of men consumed alcohol
  25. 25. Example of when to use a list Studies were assessed based on four criteria by Michie and Abraham (2004). These criteria are random allocation or matched control group, pre and post intervention data reporting, reporting intention to treat analysis, and reporting all outcomes indicated by aims and objectives of the study. Studies were assessed based on 4 criteria by Michie and Abraham (2004). These criteria are: 1. random allocation or matched control group; 2. pre and post intervention data reporting; 3. reporting intention to treat analysis; and 4. reporting all outcomes indicated by aims and objectives of the study.
  26. 26. Spot the un-needed words  Lessons learned = Lessons  Future plans = Plans  Background information = Background (or leave it out)  Very unique = Unique  First introduced = Introduced  New innovation = Innovation  Early beginnings = Start Source: www.mamud.com
  27. 27. Short words are better than long words  Numerous Many  Individual Person, man or woman  Remainder Rest  Initial First  To implement To do  Attempt Try  Sufficient Enough  Referred to as Called Source: www.mamud.com
  28. 28. Short words are better than long words  Facilitate Help  Utilize Use  Demonstrate Show  Initiate, commence Begin  In close proximity to Near  Despite the fact that Although  Endeavour Try Source: www.mamud.com
  29. 29. Short words are better than long words  Exerts a lethal effect Kills  For the purpose of To  In view of the fact that Because  Is equipped with Has  Magnitude Size  Prior to Before  Subsequent to After  Until such time as Until  Remunerate Pay  Negatively affects Harms Source: www.mamud.com
  30. 30. Words to watch  Context In the Vietnamese context = In Vietnam  Level At the hospital level = At the hospital  Case In the case of CVD, = CVD rates rates increased by 10% increased by 10% Source: www.mamud.com
  31. 31. Words to watch  Respectively  Diabetes and hypertension increased by 3% and 12% respectively  Diabetes went up by 3%; hypertension went up 12%.  Work  The NGO has worked to support  The NGO has supported  The organization worked to promote the sharing of lessons…  The organization shared lessons… Source: www.mamud.com
  32. 32. Things to avoid  Avoid sentences that begin with…  I might add…  It should be pointed out that…  It is interesting to note that…  Avoid inflated prepositions and conjunctions Examples  With the possible exception of… Except  For the reason that… Because  He totally lacked the ability to… He couldn’t  She was unable to give any information beyond the fact that… She said Source: www.mamud.com
  33. 33. Avoid weak starts  There is…  There are…  It is important to note that…  Interestingly…  It is self-evident that…  It goes without saying that…  I might add…  It should be pointed out that… Source: www.mamud.com
  34. 34. Common mistakes when writing long documents  presenting a detailed description of your entire research project  presenting academic subtleties  using jargon (unless absolutely necessary)  presenting all your findings in one place (much better to be succinct in shorter document)
  35. 35. Checklist for avoiding clutter  Re-examine every sentence you write  Is every word doing useful work?  Can any thought be expressed more briefly?  Does anything sound pompous or pretentious?  Are you keeping any word only because you think it’s beautiful?  Tool for cutting clutter  Roget’s Thesaurus or any other good dictionary of synonyms.
  36. 36. Contact me for guidance at: n.ashramcgrath@leeds.ac.uk

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