(This course is available online as well as in person. Please visit the online courses section if you are interested in doing the course online.)
This is a one-day course to teach you how to write in plain English. The typical format of the course is as follows.
9.30 Introduction to the course
10.10 Is the information as clear as possible?
10.30 Is the style appropriate for the audience?
11.00 Shortening sentences
11.20 Writing style - what do readers think?
11.45 Suggestions for clear writing
12.00 Being active about passives
1.45 Righting some writing wrongs
2.35 Revealing hidden verbs
3.15 Setting out and organising good letters
3.30 Planning and drafting a complete letter
5.00 Summary and close
Please check our course dates for the next available course.
A day on the plain English course
(The following article was written by a former press officer, about his experience of a plain English course.)
We run hundreds of training courses each year, but the most popular is our plain English open course. It's a one-day introduction to writing in plain English. But what exactly happens on the course, and how do the delegates see the day?
'Join Plain English Campaign and see the world', they said, 'Rio, New Delhi, Miami.' No mention of Manchester on a Thursday morning. Still, at least I've had an easy journey, unlike one delegate who left Gateshead at 5am. Now that's what I call a commitment to plain English!
To set the scene, our trainer asks everyone to introduce themselves and explain what they hope to get from the course. As tends to happen on the open course, a wide range of industries are represented, from councils and health trusts to a major bank and an engineering firm.
Most of the delegates are either working on projects to rewrite customer information, or are using the day as a taster to see if using plain English can help their organisation.
After running through how Plain English Campaign works, our trainer, a self-confessed 'language anorak', talks about how the teaching of grammar in our schools has developed. At least one delegate admits to having flashbacks to the days of adverbs and adjectives.
The first practical exercise sees the delegates take a page from a holiday brochure and try to work out how much a particular holiday costs.
This part of the course is called 'Is the information as clear as possible?' Needless to say, it isn't. The 15 people in the room come up with 11 different answers. Only one delegate, from a major bank, gets the correct figure. As our trainer explains, 'We're all reasonably intelligent people, so the information cannot be clear enough.'
Next is a 163-word sentence from a government notice. 'I've read this about 250 times,' our trainer admits, 'and I still don't know what it means!'
It soon becomes clear that our trainer is preaching to the converted, so he moves on to shattering the 'false rules' of grammar. As he explains, many of these are needless restrictions: 'I feel like people are having to write with handcuffs on.'
One such myth is that a sentence cannot begin with a conjunction such as 'And', 'Because' or 'But'. Though most of the delegates accept that such sentences are perfectly acceptable, there is still some reluctance. One delegate, from a telecommunications company, explains that 'even now, listening to you saying we can start a sentence with 'And', I can hear my schoolteacher telling me not to. I just can't imagine myself starting a sentence with 'And'.'
Our trainer reassures everyone that they do not need to follow this advice if it makes them feel uncomfortable. He explains that the most important point about plain English is to make your writing more human, as if you were talking directly to the reader.
One delegate, from an engineering firm, explains that this doesn't always come naturally: 'I've had it drummed into me that you don't write the same way as you speak. The crazy thing is that when we send an e-mail, that's exactly what we do.' As the course breaks for lunch, the group concludes that traditional ways of writing aren't always the most appropriate or effective.
After a few baffling extracts from Golden Bull winners give the afternoon session a light-hearted start, the course moves on to passive sentences. Our trainer explains that, although the differences between active and passive sentences are somewhat technical, there is a simple way to spot passive sentences. 'In a passive sentence, there usually isn't a human being in sight.' One delegate, an engineer is not afraid to admit that his industry tends to use passive sentences to avoid implying any individual responsibility.
During the next topic, developing style guides for writing letters to customers, a delegate who is a hospital trust worker says that systems can often get in the way of common sense: 'It's the environment we work in. I sometimes get reports sent back if they aren't in the bureaucratic style. But with letters, we're writing for the patients, not the management. When they disagreed, I took some of our material out and tested in the community to see what really works.'
The course would normally finish with a practical exercise, rewriting a letter using plain English. But with today's group so enthusiastic, time is running short, so our trainer decides to go straight to explaining our rewrite suggestions. He then finishes the day by running through some basic grammar.
His explanation of apostrophes seems to go down well. One delegate reveals: 'I've always had trouble with apostrophes, but you've made it much simpler. I'm wondering what I've been confused about!'
As the course ends, and one lucky delegate wins a Plain English Campaign pencil case, it seems everyone has found the course genuinely useful. One delegate reveals that a female colleague who was also on the course had been very sceptical about it beforehand, yet she was one of the most active participants during the day. The feedback forms, where delegates can give their opinions anonymously, are all positive. One person is clearly still excited by the prospect of splitting infinitives: 'I will now boldly write leaflets with confidence.'
According to our trainer, although the content of courses is the same, every course he teaches is different. 'You get a different group of people every day, and you have to go with the crowd. The worst courses are where everybody is quiet. Sometimes you do a course in an office and everybody clams up because the managing director is in the room.'
The open course is only ever meant to be an introduction to writing in plain English. Although people attending the course will naturally have at least some interest in the subject before coming along, it seems the day is often inspirational as well as informative. As one delegate wrote after the course: 'I need to follow this up - what next' Is there anything else I can do'