Ten tips for writing in plain English – for the construction industry

All workers on a construction site need to understand safety information. Risks of an incident rise can if people struggle to read safety documentation. Plain English means writing so that all users can understand the first time they read it. Following these ten tips can help you to write clearly and effectively. We support Safety Construction Week 2019.
Red toolbox with tools
Red toolbox with tools

Here’s a toolbox of ten tips for writing in plain English – as part of our support for Construction Safety Week.

The aim is to make it easier for all target readers to get your message the first time they read. Plain English helps everyone – and especially workers who don’t have English as their first language or who have challenges with literacy.

Plan – to ensure it’s suitable for your intended users

1. Who are your target readers?
Try to assess users’ language skills and ability to read English.
If you’re writing for workers or contractors, follow the guidelines below.
(If you’re writing for regulators, public sector bodies, inspectors or management, you can still use plain English but a more formal style might be appropriate.)

2. What is your main ‘take-away’ message?
Example:  Falls from a height are the most common type of construction injury.

3. What is your call to action? What do you want workers to do after reading?
Example: Use fall protection when working at heights.

Write – using plain English for a wide audience

4. Use ordinary words that everyone can understand.
For example, use ‘before’ instead of ‘prior to’ and ‘carry out’ or ‘do’ instead of ‘implement’.

5. Avoid jargon, acronyms and technical terms, where possible.
If you must use them, also explain them in ordinary words.

6. Write simple sentences that contain one main point.
Keep sentences short (15 words or less).

7. Break information into easy-to-read chunks.
Create short sections with short clear headings.
Keep paragraphs short (4 lines or less).

8. Use the active voice instead of the passive voice.
This makes it clear ‘who does what’ from the start of the sentence.

Safety boots with steel toecaps must be worn by all workers.
No blocks can be used to support scaffolding.

You must wear safety boots with steel toecaps.
Do not use blocks to support scaffolding.

9. Display information clearly and leave plenty of white space.
For example, use bullet-point or numbered lists for instructions. Divide lists of over 6 items into shorter lists with individual headings.  
You can also try to use visuals such as infographics, flow charts or tables.

Check ­­­– to make sure it’s in plain English
10. Read it aloud to check it sounds readable and not ‘clunky’.
You could also test it by asking a few of your intended readers if they find it easy to read and use.

Next blog for Construction Safety Week is 20 words to avoid – if you want to write in plain English

Plain English Ireland is supporting Construction Safety Week 2019