Use 'you', 'we' and 'I' in your documents. This will help you to imagine your reader and make the tone of your material warmer. It's easier for readers to engage with information when you address them directly.
Use everyday words
There's nothing wrong with long words, but there's no need to use them when short words will do. If you do need to use specialised language or jargon, make sure you explain what it means. At the back of this guide you'll find suggestions for shorter words to replace long ones (see pages 31–34).
Also watch out for buzzwords – words and phrases that become fashionable for a while – as they can put readers off. Some examples are '24/7' 'going forward' and 'driving change'. If you find yourself using buzzwords, pause and work out what you're really trying to say.
Keep sentences short
Long sentences, like long documents, can be hard work for your reader. While there are no strict rules about sentence length, try to keep sentences to an average of 15 to 20 words. You can vary the length with a mix of shorter and longer sentences, but try not to go over 25 words. Break up sentences with full stops rather than semi-colons, as people are more familiar with full stops.
Use the active voice
When we talk about the active voice, we mean the way the action word – the verb – is used in a sentence. Most sentences have three main parts: a
verb and an
subject is who or what is doing the action. The
verb is the action. The
object is who or what the action is being done to. An example is 'Jane wrote the report.' 'Jane' is the subject, 'wrote' is the verb, and 'the report' is the object.
The opposite of the active voice is the passive voice. This is when the object comes first and the subject last. The sentence above written in the passive voice would be 'The report was written by Jane'.
The active voice is clearer and livelier and comes across as more personal and direct. You also usually need fewer words to say the same thing, as in these examples.
Sentences in the
passive voice are written in this order:
will be done by
was won by
A decision on your application
will be made by
were approved by
Sentences in the
active voice are written in this order:
will decide on
the building plans.
Most sentences will have other words as well, but the subject, verb and object are nearly always there.
Know when to use the passive voice
The passive voice puts a bit of distance between the person giving the information and the person receiving it. Sometimes it is appropriate to use it, such as when the active voice seems too harsh.
For example, 'We will close your account if you do not pay us today.' This is active, but it may be the wrong tone to use. In this case, you might prefer to use the passive voice and write, 'This account will be closed if it is not paid today.'
The passive voice is also useful when you don't know who the subject of the sentence is, or they aren't important to the topic, or you don't want to focus on them.
Because the passive voice can slow down your reader, you should use it only occasionally.
Avoid using nouns made from verbs
Nouns made from verbs are known as 'nominalisations'. Avoid these and instead try to make actions direct and strong. Some examples include 'consider' rather than 'consideration, 'establish' rather than 'establishment' and 'discuss' rather than 'discussion'.
|We gave consideration to four options.||
We considered four options.|
|The retail company is working on the establishment of a new market.||
The retail company is establishing a new market.|
|They will have a discussion about the new building tomorrow.||
They will discuss the new building tomorrow.|
Remove unnecessary words and phrases
Watch out for wording that bogs down your message, such as:
- Wordy phrases – using more words than you need to say something.
- Noun strings – groups of nouns joined together.
- Tautologies – two words that mean the same thing.
- Double negatives – two negative words where a single word will have the same effect.
Only use as many words as you need to get your message across clearly. Here are some examples, and you'll find more towards the end of this guide.
|in advance of||
|owing to the fact that||
|in the event that||
The words in bold make up a noun string, also known as a noun stack. To fix these, sometimes you will need to make the sentence a little longer.
|This year the company is working on
organisation employee capabilities.||
This year the company is working on improving the skills of staff in the organisation.|
|less unhealthy option||
Be consistent with any terms you use in your documents. For example, if you call something a review, use this term throughout your document. It can confuse your readers if you use the words evaluation, audit or study for the same thing.
Rather than use abstract ideas, help your reader connect with something they know. Sometimes small details can give a better picture of what you are writing about. Again, keep in mind your reader and what knowledge of the subject they already have.
|A period of unfavourable conditions affected the farm's productivity.||
Extended drought, falling wheat prices and rising water costs affected the farm's productivity.|
Spell out acronyms
Acronyms are words formed from the first letters of other words. If you are using them in your document, spell them out the first time with the acronym in brackets, for example, Australian Research Council (ARC) or United Kingdom (UK).
Sometimes well-known organisations and businesses become better known by their acronym than their whole name. Examples include CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), TasCOSS (Tasmanian Council of Social Services) and the RACT (Royal Automobile Club of Tasmania).
When deciding which form to use, think about your reader and what will make sense to them. If you are using a lot of acronyms, it can be helpful to list their short and long forms in alphabetical order on a separate page.
Use questions and answers
Questions and answers are a good way to get information across or emphasise certain facts. They also mean people can go straight to the area that particularly interests them. Having a list of Frequently Asked Questions, or FAQs, is a common way of doing this.
An example of a FAQs list
What does FAQs mean?
A. It is the abbreviation for Frequently Asked Questions.
When might you use FAQs?
A. When you want to make information easy to find or when you want to emphasise certain facts.
How long should a FAQs list be?
A. There are no rules, but longer than two pages can be hard work for your reader.
There are some exceptions. If you are interested in this topic, you can find out more from grammar guides. See the Extra Resources section in Appendix 5.