10 tips for writing effective English like Winston Churchill

22 March 2017
door Regina Coeli

In 1940, Winston Churchill sent a memo to his war cabinet stating “To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points. I ask my colleagues and their staff to see to it that their reports are shorter.” Churchill then continued to outline strategies for communicating more effectively and more efficiently. 

Fortunately, many of us do not have to engage in physical warfare every day, but we do face a continuous uphill battle with writing and reading mountains of emails and other correspondence.

So how do you write more effectively, especially in English?

1. Write for your audience not for yourself
Who are you writing to? Is it to a specialist in the field or a layperson? Would your reader understand the jargon, or is it better to write in plain English?

Let me give you an example of how writing in plain English could increase a company’s performance. When it came to choosing my car insurance company, I chose it primarily because I could actually understand the insurance documents written in plain English rather than in legal English. I’m sure that other customers did exactly same.

2. Write like a newspaper not a crime novel
Lead with the most important piece of information, the headlines, at the beginning. Remember most emails/ business reports should not be like a murder mystery with the reader trying to guess what the report is about or clues revealing the point at the end.

3. Write short sentences and paragraphs.
This makes it easier for the reader to remember the key points. For non native English speakers, this also helps reduce the likelihood of making grammatical errors.

4. Keep the subject, verb, and object close together
This helps the reader to understand the information more quickly and retain it more easily.

Compare:
o The impact that human rights have on people’s lives is enormous.
o Human rights have an enormous impact on people’s lives.

5. Cut out any unnecessary words or information
Use the following shorter words instead of their longer alternatives:

 in order to  to 
 in the event that   if
 subsequent to   after
 prior to   before
 despite the fact that   although
 in light of  because, since 
 owing to the fact that   because, since

Compare:

o The following summary is intended only to highlight certain information contained elsewhere in this document.
o This summary highlights some information from the document.

6. Use strong verbs instead of nouns.
Use a verb, if you want someone to act: a verb promotes action, whilst a noun outlines a state.

Compare:
o The bank will make a distribution of the shares to the shareholders.
o The bank will distribute the shares to the shareholders.

Compare:
o We will have a discussion about the strategy.
o We will discuss the strategy.

7. Write in the positive
Tell your reader what you want rather than what you don’t want. Most people only hear the main verb and miss hearing the not in a sentence.

Compare:
o This product is not unlike any other on the market.
o This product is similar to others on the market.

Compare:
o Announcement in train: Please don’t forget to take your belongings when leaving the train.
o Announcement in train: Please remember to take your belongings when leaving the train.

8. Preferably use the active voice; use the passive voice sparingly and purposely.
In an active sentence, you know who is responsible for the action.e.g. I ate the apple.

A passive sentence focuses on what is done rather than who does it. You know what happens but not who is responsible.
e.g. An apple was eaten.

Most of the time the active voice works better than the passive voice.

Compare:
o The marketing team managed the project successfully (and we want to celebrate that success). (Active voice)
o The project was managed successfully (by whom? by the cleaning staff? the board of directors? By both the cleaning staff and the board of directors?)

Compare:
o A red pen should be used to highlight the important information.
o Use a red pen to highlight the important information.

9. Watch your punctuation

Compare:
o Let’s eat children. (The cannibal version.)
o Let’s eat, children. (The vegetarian version.)

10. Summarise the email’s content in the subject header.

This saves time for the reader and hopefully engages the reader.

Compare:
To: HR
Cc: Board of Directors
Subject: Communication in emails

To: HR
Cc: Board of Directors
Subject: 10 options for effective written communication

 

 

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