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Writing using plain English

Writing for a global audience can be daunting, but by using plain English, you can make sure nothing gets lost in translation. The growth we’re experiencing means we need to be able to communicate with people from all over the world, so it’s a big focus for us.

Map of the world showing the top 7 countries that visit help.xero.com – most to least are, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States, Canada, South Africa, India

So what exactly is plain English? The Plain English Campaign defines it as ‘Writing that the intended audience can understand and act on the first time they read it.’

Plain English also means cutting out jargon and avoiding slang and unfamiliar phrases or words. Clarity is key. What is understood in New Zealand is not necessarily understood in the United States. For example, in New Zealand we use the term ‘fortnight’ to describe a frequency of every two weeks. But we know that in the United States and Canada this is not a familiar word.

8 ways you can write using plain English principles

  1. Write for the reader, not the writer.
  2. Use simple, familiar vocabulary and plain English.
  3. Use correct grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  4. Structure content in a logical way. The top of the page is the most important.
  5. Be concise. Studies show less is more when it comes to words on a website.
  6. Use positive language – it’s shorter and clearer.
  7. Get personal. Use a conversational tone and the word ‘you’.
  8. Use easy-to-read design. If it looks good, people are more likely to read it.

How we keep you in mind when we write

Let’s look at how we apply plain English principles to help.xero.com.

The phrase ‘Content is King’ is one that Xero’s technical writers understand well. If you’ve ever visited help.xero.com, you’ll know there’s a wealth of content about all things ‘online accounting’. Xero’s Help Centre is heavily read by our customers, with an average of 6,000 hits a day. Have a look.
Check out the Xero Help Centre.

Behind the scenes of all this helpful content, we have a team of five technical writers. They create and maintain everything you see on help.xero.com, including the help tips in Xero.

Five Xero documentation writers sitting at a table with coffees in the Xero cafe

When our technical writers begin a new piece of content, it starts with you. We put ourselves in your shoes. We test a new feature and keep testing until every base is covered. We distill a complex new feature into bite-size chunks so it’s easy for you to know what to do and how to do it. Descriptive subheadings are great ways to break up a wall of words so you can scan the page.

Your time is valuable and our technical writing team recognise that. Content you can understand the first time is written well. But it takes time to create something simple. As Nathaniel Hawthorne once famously said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” We couldn’t agree more.

 

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6 comments

Dan Fairbairn
4 July 2013 #

Great article, reminds me of the famous quote from Blaise Pascal:

“If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter”

Chris Rogan
4 July 2013 #

Couldn’t agree more, and had never really considered it – I always seem to struggle with this on website content writing and find that blogging and writing in a local, chatty tone far easier!

Janet Patton
4 July 2013 #

Best written technical instructions read to date.
This includes simple short videos, colours, font size and layout on your website.
The instructions are clear, simple and concise.
You have raised the benchmark.

Scott
5 July 2013 #

The help content supporting Xero rocks! You can tell instantly you guys (and girls) care about what you write and how you write it! Not so easy when your demystifying a stuffy topic like accountancy.

Angela
8 July 2013 #

Have been using Xero help centre all the time, easy to follow up, clear and precise instructions given.

Tamyka
11 December 2013 #

These principles are excellent, and they reflect how I try to write help pages—especially using the word ‘you’. My new documentation test is asking myself, ‘Would Xero let me post this?’

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