Plain Language Awards

Celebrate the stories of our clearest business communicators


See your documents unfurl when you apply plain language principles | Photo by Lorraine Neill on

We asked Fraser Buffini, one of our new international judges for the 2022 Awards, to tell us a story of transformation. Appropriately enough, Fraser is one of the panel members judging the award for Best Plain Language Turnaround.

Fraser’s career began in the diplomatic world writing the very content he would later want to transform. His company is called The Clear Writing Lab and is based in Grenoble, France. It specialises in transforming content into clear English and training others to do the same.

In this article, Fraser explains how he uses George Orwell’s six rules for political writers to transform difficult content. He walks us through the thought process behind the way he edited a piece of legal writing and transformed it into something readable.

In my former life, I was an aide to the deputy head of a huge mission in the Balkans tasked with fixing the broken rule-of-law system after it imploded during a war. While it was a technical mission on paper, we were relentlessly dragged into politics.

Most of the time my job was to fix reports.

Now, in political writing truth is often kept just out of reach. That’s simply because of the way politics works: it’s about vying for narratives and pushing your agenda. If you do not have neutral anchoring principles, you absolutely will end up keeping the truth just out of reach of the reader. Not deliberately of course.

So where do you get these anchoring principles from? Well, there’s one place I’ll always go to that can be relied on no matter the context, no matter the content. In a 1946 essay, George Orwell wrote six rules for political writers that no one has bettered to this day. They are pure in their simplicity, easy to remember, and have genuinely stood the test of time. And they can be used in any writing, not just in politics. That’s why almost every newspaper style guide today is basically an elaboration on them:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Profile photo in black and white of Fraser Buffini

Fraser Buffini transforms unclear text into readable content | Photo by The Clear Writing Lab

Let me show you how I used these brilliant rules to rework a particularly bad piece of legal writing for a political report. This report had to be as neutral as possible. Here is the hot mess:

‘As abovementioned it was clear that the prosecutor was, inter alia, discontented with the deal that was hammered out henceforth allowing the defendant to walk free.’

Even before the Netflix logo has double-thumped the screen, let’s just delete the worthless bit of metadiscourse that is ‘abovementioned’ (Rule 3 – cut words if you can).

Ok, let’s start. ‘It was clear that–’ … hold on, clear how? Did something happen that made this clear? Did the prosecutor say something? Here is Rule 4 at play: that pesky passive voice throwing sand in our eyes.

Let’s send an email to the drafter of this report and ask them why they wrote ‘it was clear’. The drafter writes back later that day saying ‘well, she gave a statement to the press after the court hearing saying she was angry the deal went through’. That’s pretty useful information that could’ve been put in. Getting rid of the passive voice often helps us get closer to the truth.

Right, now we have basically deleted 20% of the sentence and already found out useful new information. The only text we have cleared so far is ‘the prosecutor was…’.

The next phrase, ‘inter alia’, breaks Rule 5 as it’s a foreign phrase and jargon (it means ‘among other things’). I get the feeling the drafter is ‘hedging’ here: I’m guessing they thought everything the prosecutor said was important and by focusing on one thing, it would reduce the importance of the other things. Let’s drop the drafter a quick email and find out what other things the prosecutor said. ‘Actually she just listed a bunch of legal clauses’, comes the response.

No new or useful information then. The drafter was definitely hedging. Let’s not get our limbs tangled up in the false safety net of comprehensiveness. Delete.

The next word is ‘discontented’. Rule 2 alert! It’s a long word where I think the shorter ‘unhappy’ will do.

Up next is ‘hammered out’. Rule 1 jumping into action here: this is a metaphor we see written all the time in print. Rule 1 is fantastic, since it makes us decide whether we create a fresh, new metaphor or we just remove it and replace it with something plain. I think for this report it’s better to say the deal was ‘reached’, than to come up with a fresh metaphor. However, we’re now in the pickle of the passive voice again (Rule 4): who reached the deal?

We call the drafter on their mobile to clarify: ‘oh it was a bail agreement the defendant’s lawyer made with the judge’. That sneaky passive voice hiding information from us again (Rule 4).

Next up is ‘henceforth’. I’m going to invoke Rule 3 here and declare that this word can, and should, be cut.

And finally, let’s have a look at that last phrase ‘walk free’. It sounds a bit like Rule 1 needs to be declared: I smell hints of a metaphor that we’re used to seeing in print. Let’s just go with the simple ‘released’ instead.

Our sentence now reads:

In a press conference after the hearing, the prosecutor said she was unhappy with the bail agreement the judge and the defendant’s lawyer reached, which allowed the defendant’s release.

Compare it with the old sentence:

As abovementioned it was clear that the prosecutor was, inter alia, discontented with the deal that was hammered out henceforth allowing the defendant to walk free.

The transformed version is much clearer, conveys more information and feels less wishy-washy. Somehow it feels more … honest.

As Fraser sums up:

Having a few guiding principles to fall back on can make a big difference. Using Orwell’s rules have been my go-to principles throughout my working life. Just by applying them, we have managed to unearth crucial new information, remove redundant and unclear phrases, improve clarity, and bring forth more truth.

There is a world of clear writing and plain language advice out there. But with Orwell’s rules, no one has given so much with so little.

Surprise and delight our judging panel with your best transformations

We want to see how you’ve transformed your content. Perhaps you’ve had feedback from readers who wanted changes. Or you decided to update your content into something more usable. Show us how you applied George Orwell’s writing rules or other plain language principles. Get your entries in before 31 July!

Read the criteria for the Best Plain Language Turnaround category

Read our 2021 blog ‘Anatomy of a plain English turnaround’

And remember, it only takes a sentence!

Read the criteria for the Best Plain Language Sentence Transformation

Read our 2021 blog ‘Transforming hungry caterpillars into beautiful butterflies’


Posted In: 2022 Plain Language Awards, Plain Language Turnaround

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Technical communicators keep the wheels turning with clear communications. Now’s your time to shine! | Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

Accomplished technical communicators are often the unsung heroes of their organisation. They produce the content that makes the wheels go round — sometimes literally!

If this feels like a familiar scenario, or you’ve produced technical information you’re particularly proud of, now is your time to shine. Enter the award for Best Plain Language Technical Communicator — the judges are very keen to hear from you!

As Louise Eades, a previous category winner, said on winning Best Technical Communicator:

Technical communication is a job where less is more and simpler is better. If your reader has to search the internet for the meaning of a word, or read a sentence three times to understand it, you’ve failed.

Technical communication is finally getting the recognition it deserves as a skilled and valuable profession. Anyone can write, but not everyone can clearly communicate technical stuff to the people who need to understand it.

With that approach in mind, here are some ideas to get you thinking about what you could include in your entry.

Tell us about your clear procedures

Tell us about the new procedures you’ve written, so that essential work can continue. Those procedures and operating instructions are so clear and easy to use that your colleagues can carry out complex activities without missing a beat.

Tell us about your user-friendly online help

Tell us about the chunks of online help files you’ve rewritten, so that customers can find answers to their questions easily. You’ve created them using clear structure and language to support your whole customer base, with its diverse language and educational backgrounds.

Tell us about your new technical specifications

Tell us about the new technical specifications or instructions that you’ve developed in double-quick time for your company’s new products. Maybe you wrote them while grappling with MadCap Flare or FrameMaker, and collaborating in Confluence too!

Show us what you’ve done as an expert technical communicator

The judges are keen to see a representative portfolio of your work, so you can send in up to five samples. Tell us the context of your documents, including their purpose and audience. The judges also recommend you showcase your plain language skills by including samples that highlight excellent structure and layout.

Read more about the Best Plain Language Technical Communicator category

Need more encouragement to enter?

Check out this fun video!

TechCommNZ’s 10 reasons to enter the 2022 Plain Language Awards

Meet the category sponsor for Best Plain Language Technical Communicator

We’re delighted that once again our long-term sponsor TechCommNZ is getting behind this award. Thanks TechCommNZ — we couldn’t do it without you!

Find out more about TechCommNZ


Posted In: 2022 Plain Language Awards, Best Technical Communicator

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