Would your mum understand that? It's fair to say that most of us hate bureaucracy. And meaningless, wordy bureaucracy even more. I've lost count of the number of times I've received a massive epistle from Barnet council when all they really want to say is something like, "We're putting your parking permit charges up by 150% (no, seriously, we really are). Oh, and if you don't pay it - because you don't actually have a choice - we're going to fine you so heavily that'll you'll need to remortgage your property." So I for one was pleased to read that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has written to all his civil servants to tell them to write only in plain English. No jargon, no fluff - just good old straightforward English.
More specifically, he's asked them to write as if writing for their mothers. I'm not sure whether he is necessarily casting aspersions on the intelligence of these poor matriarchs (indeed, my own mother is as eagle eyed and grammatically vigorous as any university professor - so much so that she will often query my use of split infinitives and the like) but the point he's making is clear.
In copywriting terms, the golden rule of the moment is that simplicity is always best - usually no matter what the subject. If you're using jargon and stock phrases, that's only going to annoy the reader. Estate agents are terrible at that, incidentally; just look in any of their windows to notice how many of them mention that a garden "benefits from well-stocked borders". Oh, it's got quite a lot of plants in it, has it? That's unusual for a garden...
Whether one likes his politics or not, Mr Gove certainly has the chops to be able to offer his advice. A former journalist and English graduate of Oxford, he knows what good writing should look like. And it certainly doesn't mean wordy gobbledigook. (I wonder where he stands on starting sentences with "and"? Probably not a fan - but then context and audience are important things to consider.)
Nor does good writing mean overly long, self-important waffling. "Concision is in itself a form of politeness," he maintains. "Using inflated political rhetoric of the 'first may I say how much I care about X' is not polite. It is a time-wasting exercise in self-regarding pomposity. So don't even go there. Instead use direct, clear and vigorous language."
Hear, hear! Below are Michael Gove's ten golden rules to his civil servants:
- If in doubt, cut it out.
- Read it out loud – if it sounds wrong, don’t send it.
- In letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less.
- The more the letter reads like a political speech the less good it is as a letter.
- Would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?
- Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens.
- Always use concrete words and phrases in preference to abstractions.
- Gwynne’s Grammar is a brief guide to the best writing style.
- Simon Heffer’s Strictly English is a more comprehensive – and very entertaining – companion volume.
- Our written work should be the clearest, most elegant, and most enjoyable to read of any Whitehall department’s because the Department for Education has the best civil servants in Whitehall.
(First published in the Mail on Sunday)
All sound advice, I would say. That being said, there is one tiny thing that niggles me. Is a senior MP compiling a writing guide to send to his staff - civil servants who (presumably) are already well educated - a good use of time? There must be plenty of equally capable and lesser paid people just as able to do that job. I suppose the fact that he is the Education Secretary makes it slightly more appropriate than former Transport Secretary Justine Greening writing a five-page essay on grammar in 2011 which she circulated among her staff. He is, after all, eminently qualified to give the advice, and leading by example (particularly in view of his stance on grammar in primary schools) is a good thing. But Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary, drawing up guidelines on the use of clauses and semi-colons doesn't seem to be quite the best use of his time.
Either way, the rules are, by and large, worth noting. If you want to check the readability of your own carefully crafted work, I recommend running it through the automated test on www.read-able.com which grades it in a number of ways.
Just one caveat: good copywriters should know the rules but be more than ready to break them as and when the need arises. We can't, after all, use the same rules for formal writing as for creative writing, advertising, marketing and the like. Abstractions, for instance, may be absolutely necessary in many cases.
I must also confess that I've never read Gwynne's Grammar, nor Simon Heffer's Strictly English. Must pop to the library...
Ashley is a blogger, copywriter and editor
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