Plain English and Australian usage

You may have been told you must write in plain English, or maybe you will just agree that it’s the best way to communicate with your chosen audience. Either way, you may need some help choosing appropriate words and phrases. This is especially important if you are writing instructions for other people to follow.

What is plain English?

Plain English is clear and accurate writing, in a natural style, and avoids the use of bureaucratic, longwinded and confusing language.

Learning to write in plain English

A great resource for learning how to write and communicate in plain English is the Oxford Guide to Plain English, which describes this ‘woolly term’ as:

The writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a co-operative, motivated person a good chance of understanding it at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.'

The Complete Plain Words, published by Penguin in 1987, also gives good explanations of how and why you should write clearly.

The Plain English Campaign was launched in Britain in 1979, and offers free online guides and other tools, including a gobbledegook generator.

Choosing the right words

The Macquarie Dictionary and Thesaurus are my first choice when I’m searching for the right word. I like to have a hardcopy edition but it’s well worth having a subscription to the online versions. However, a dictionary doesn’t always help us choose the best words to convey our meaning. There are many books that explain correct usage of words and phrases.

The two modern and specifically Australian references I find most useful are:

Right Words: A guide to English usage in Australia, by Stephen Murray-Smith, 2nd ed., Penguin, Ringwood, Vic 1990, is still an excellent reference. It explains the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, the difference in usage between words that are frequently confused, and common mistakes.

The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage, by Pam Peters, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, Vic, 2007, is a comprehensive guide that gives the facts about variants of language used in written Australian communication, and leaves it up to the reader to choose the most suitable. It compares Australian English with British, American and other varieties of English. It covers spelling, grammar, punctuation, the style and structure of language, and editorial style and formatting.

If you are writing for an American audience, Garner’s Modern American Usage by Brian A. Garner, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, New York, is a useful guide.


How to use your Kindle Paperwhite to become a better writer

The Kindle Paperwhite has some features that can help you become a better writer, in an enjoyable and relatively effortless way. Other versions of Kindle or other devices may have these features, but the Kindle Paperwhite is the one I'm using.

A Kindle Paperwhite device

Firstly, if you want to write well, you must read widely. Any ebook reader can help you there. The classics are available free or at a very low cost, and when you hear about an interesting new book you can often obtain it immediately. Don't just read the popular works, though - and do read books from the previous decades and even the previous century, if you are not already familiar with them. By doing so, you will automatically absorb correct grammar, sentence structure, spelling and a wide vocabulary. You will see words and phrases in context, and will be less likely to use them inappropriately.

The Kindle Paperwhite has a direct link to Amazon and to Goodreads, the book reviewing application, where you can review books you have read and see recommendations for similar books.

The next useful feature of a Kindle is the dictionary. You can choose from several dictionaries, for example the Oxford or the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Sadly, the Macquarie Dictionary, which is the standard for Australia, does not seem to be available on Amazon. For Australians, the next best option is the Oxford. Once you have chosen your dictionary (under Settings), when you press on a word the definition is displayed. Since this is so much more convenient than looking the word up online, or dragging out volume 3 of your hardcopy dictionary, you are much more likely to look up words you are not familiar with and find out the exact definition, rather than relying on guesswork.

The Kindle Paperwhite also offers to look the word up on Wikipedia, which may or may not be useful.

The new feature that is offered in the Kindle Paperwhite, which didn't exist in the Kindle Touch, is the Vocabulary Builder. If you have turned on this feature, every time you look up a word in the dictionary, it is added to the list of words you're learning in the Vocabulary Builder.

When you go to Vocabulary Builder, you will see the words you've looked up, and you can see the definition. You can also see the word in the context of the sentence from the book where you read it. Even if the dictionary didn't have a definition, the context may be enough to remind you of the meaning if you looked it up elsewhere (for example, on Google). In this way, you will increase your vocabulary in a fairly painless way. More importantly, you will be reminded of the context, by seeing the word in the sentence from the book you were reading. This will help you avoid the classic mistake of using a newly learned word in an inappropriate context. If you have chosen well-written books to read, you will see new words used in interesting ways. When you are confident that you know the new word and how to use it, you can select 'Mastered' and it will disappear from your wordlist.

All of these tools can also be used to learn or reinforce your knowledge of a foreign language.

By learning new words and the appropriate context for their use, you will become a better writer. By reading widely from the classics and the best modern literature, you will learn to write grammatically correct sentences. By increasing your vocabulary, you will be able to use vibrant language and avoid using cliches and jargon. All of these benefits can be obtained in snippets of time, on the bus, at lunchtime, or in the evening. You will become a better writer, confident in your knowledge of the English language.

Using Scrivener for writing and editing, and SF writers who use Scrivener

I've only just started using Scrivener in the last couple of months. I like the idea of having all the research notes, drafts, etc. in one place and having something equivalent to sticky-notes or menu cards for shuffling ideas around. Also - importing Word (or RTF) files, ditching all the horrible formatting issues and being able to just focus on the writing, what a relief!

Jamie Rubin on using Scrivener and the editorial process

David M. Kelly

David M. Kelly home page

Self Publishing: Dealing with information overload

Protect writers from online bullying (in Amazon reviews)

And the post that brought me here in the first place - searching for why Scrivener is so slow to load:

Scrivener auto-save blues

Cloth of Life - poems about the devastation of Alzheimer's disease

This is the first release online of a collection of poems written by Frances Vadla about caring for her Norwegian husband, Lars. The poems are often humorous and always honest and moving. They open a window on a life of love, family and friends, weaving and homesteading in Alaska. Cloth of Life free download page

Book review - Your Book Publishing Options, by Euan Mitchell

If you're thinking about writing and publishing in Australia, I highly recommend this book: Your Book Publishing Options: How to make and market ebooks and print books - Euan Mitchell, Overdog Press, 2014.

Euan Mitchell gives clear and authoritative advice about how to negotiate the maze of options in the Australian publishing market, from writing the first draft of a book to publishing and marketing it. He explains how to publish an ebook or print book, print-on-demand, or a combination of these options.