Published: 07/04/2005, Volume II5, No. 5949 Page 36

Writing clear and concise documents is crucial, and can pay for itself throughout your organisation. Former NHS manager and plain English consultant Sarah Carr has some tips on how to get the message across

So you have finished writing. But will readers find it relevant and interesting? If you defined your audience before you started, you are on the right track. Leave it for a while, then ask yourself: does it get your message across? Only make changes that contribute towards this.

Using readability formulas

When you check your grammar in Microsoft Word, the Flesch reading ease formula scores your work on a scale from 0 (very difficult) to 100 (very easy). This appears towards the bottom of a panel headed 'readability statistics'.

The formula looks at the average length of words and sentences to predict how hard text will be to read. Go for at least 60 when writing for the general public and 50 for a professional audience.

The system ignores elements like tone, content and structure, so use your score as a rough guide only.

Asking your colleagues, family or friends

People will take into account a wider range of aspects than a readability formula ever could. Think whether your colleagues, family or friends are similar to your target audience - for example, in their reading ability and interest in the subject matter.

But bear in mind your relationship with the person you ask for comments - will a member of staff feel able to criticise?

Testing on the real audience

The most thorough way of testing a document is to try it out on members of the real audience.

Be specific about what you ask people to comment on. If your message is an unpopular one, people might discuss this rather than the clarity of the text. Make sure people know you are testing the document, not them. Ask people to point out what difficulties they think others may have in understanding the text.

Consulting an expert

Plain English experts are not a substitute for testing on the real audience. But they can have a good go at assessing how readable your document is, and improving it. Even better, they can train you or your staff, giving you plain-English skills in-house.

The method (or combination of methods) you use depends on the type of document, its importance, the time available, and your budget. Making sure that you have written well is an investment. It will pay for itself many times over in fewer queries and better relations with your audience.

www. carrconsultancy. org. uk