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Plain English at Work: A Guide to Business Writing Speaking by Edward Bailey Essay

Edward Bailey conveys deep yet simple approach to writing and communicating effectively. A comprehensive guide to writing, the book is in the first-person perspective and Bailey’s style to writing simply conveys his thoughts to the reader through simple and understandable words and sentences. The feel of the book is as if Bailey directly communicates with the reader, talking or addressing in a simple way. His aim is to write simply, avoiding complex words and wordy paragraphs that provide clear understanding on the part of the reader.

Chapter 1: What is plain English writing?

The first chapter of the book discusses the essentials of English writing. Bailey first defined what plain English is: ‘a way of expressing your ideas clearly in writing and speaking.’[1] He then enumerated three principles in plain English writing:

· Style: This involves writing in clear, readable, and simple sentences rather than complex ones. As Bailey suggests: ‘write more the way you talk.’[2]

· Organization: The main idea or topic is immediately written at the start to avoid confusion of ideas or redirecting the flow of the topic.

·  Layout: Lastly, this principle is merely an organization of thoughts into a bullet form, subtitles or headings that can be helpful, visually.

Bailey then discussed the different forms of plain writing as he compared and contrasted plain writing from businessese or business writing. He used businessese as a form of writing dialect which he compared to ‘academese, leaglese, bureaucratese’ etc. Writing should be plain and simple, as presented in the example where business writing often uses wordy sentences on a simple idea that confuses its main point and is sometimes prone to misinterpretation.

Plain writing encourages reader to prefer simple words rather than complex one since, according to psycholinguists, the comprehension of complex and simple words of the human mind is a few hundred milliseconds but does not contribute to strain on short-term memory which helps better understanding.[3] He then presented several institutions in society that encourages plain English writing like the US military, federal agencies, and even lawyers. At the end of the chapter, true to his notion of organization and layout, he presented the overall structure of the book and enumerated the ideas that are to be found in the succeeding chapters.

Chapter Summary

Bailey presented the idea of plain English writing as a means of communicating effectively as well as providing a clear understanding of the main topic or idea. Plain English is easy to read and write that can be used to provide understanding on a simple or complex idea. Wordiness and highfaluting words often contribute to misunderstanding or misinterpretation. The aim of speaking and writing is to directly convey to the reader the main subject or idea, especially on the perspective of business writing. The application of this method is true, especially on business writing since it is essential for members of the working industry to directly convey the message of intent so as to avoid confusion or misinterpretation. In addition, the notion of simple or plain writing may seem unacceptable to some standards of writing because of simplistic use of words. However, the point of writing is to directly convey the message of the writer, and through the use of simple words, ideas ranging from easy to complex can be easily explained through proper organization of thought, word usage, and such.

Chapter 2: Style: writing a readable sentence

The chapter discusses the first principle Bailey mentioned in effective, plain, English writing. For Bailey, style involves utilizing the way one talk or speaks. ‘Write more the way you talk – with ordinary words, a variety of punctuation, personal pronouns and contractions.’[4]

For the author, the most effective way of plain writing is to ‘write the way you talk’ –write as though you are directly communicating with the reader. One should also write in an organized and polite manner.

However, the problem with writing as though you talk may sound simplistic or simple-minded. However, Bailey countered this argument by simply writing on the level of how one would communicate with the other. Basically, the difference between talking to a five year-old to a 25-year old is the way one talks. Therefore, writing entails the process of how one would commune themselves to the other.

Tips on Talking and Writing[5]

• Imagining oneself communicating with the reader minus the phonetic punctuations like uhhs, and ums. Speaking and writing go hand in hand.

• Use ordinary words. Wordiness contributes to confusion.

o Example: instead of commence, use begin

• Variety of punctuation (Question marks are a good way to eliminate monotonous sentences)

o Example: The main point is that the defective computer disks are not the responsibility of the manufacturer. = Just who is responsible for defective computer disks?

• Use more personal pronouns: It enables using the active voice rather than passive voice.

• Use more contractions

o Example: Can’t, won’t, don’t, that’s.

Rules on Writing

Bailey suggested that the use of contractions and the aforementioned tips in writing may slightly deviate from the rules set during the formative years in school. However, Bailey argued that not all rules are followed. He categorized them into three: rules we all agree with, rules few people agree with, and rules amateurs follow and professional don’t.

Rules People Follow

Bailey mentioned the use the universal rules of writing and grammar. ‘We all know to start sentences with capital letters and end them with periods or other terminal marks of punctuation.’[6] These rules are not the object of controversy in most writing cases since people know these rules and follow them.

Rules Few People Agree With

Bailey mentioned a case on pop-grammar where he cited an example from the writing styles of The New York Times.

“The Soviet Union evidently is not able to convince Cairo to accept a rapid cease fire.”[7]

The use of pop-grammar in this sentence refers to the usage most pop-grammarians argue about. These are the grammar experts who have the know-how on the rules of usage.

Rules Amateurs Follow and Professionals Don’t

Basically, these rules are used by professionals that sometimes do not follow the standard rules of writing and the issues on pop-grammar. Bailey mentioned John Trimble in his book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing; list ‘Seven Nevers’[8]

1. Never begin a sentence with and or but.

2. Never use contractions.

3. Never refer to the reader as you.

4. Never use the first person pronoun I.

5. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

6. Never split an infinitive.

7. Never write a paragraph containing only a single sentence.

To Bailey however, the way to simple writing is eliminating the ‘never’ in the aforementioned rules. Professional writing often involves spoken English, and these rules are not often followed, even by professionals.

Chapter Summary

Bailey enumerated several uses on style. The main argument of the chapter focuses on writing as one would speak. This enables an effective way of communication through simple word use, contractions, and questions as well as putting one’s shoes on the perspective of the writer directly talking to the reader. On the subject of contractions, the use of which may not be acceptable to the standards of formal writing or journalism. It is preferable for these contractions (can’t, won’t) to be spelled out (can not, will not) in order to be considered appropriate usage, especially on academic writing or journalism. Though contractions may not suit formal standards of writing, its usage does not make it wrong or inappropriate. The main theme of the book is to write as though one would speak, and the use of contractions helps in directly conveying messages by being simple and easy to understand.

Chapter 3: Organization: getting to the point

Chapter Summary

In lieu of simple English writing, the main topic or subject should be easily spotted, preferably at the beginning of every paragraph, though not necessarily as the first sentence. This involves what the writer wants to readers to do, purpose or opinion.

Often, if main ideas are not placed at the beginning of a paper or article, it confuses and frustrates the reader as they are lost reading through pages of paragraphs without ever realizing what the whole topic is all about. Therefore it is preferable, according to Bailey, that main ideas should be placed up front.

Common problems why main ideas are placed at the end:

· to make readers read the entire document: to build the case so reader will more likely to accept the main point

· to re-enact how the writer learned something

· to delay bad news

However, most readers do not bother finishing the entire document if main ideas are nowhere to be found up front. Readers bored with the pointless arguments of preceding paragraphs jump to the end in order to understand the main point.

In the case of delaying bad news, the whole mood of the paper is compromised as tension and suspense build up – not really the intention of proper business writing. Stating bad news also involves proper tone usage. “With bad news, tone becomes extremely important. You probably want to say something with a less rude tone than: You’re fired.”[9]

The proper way to convey bad news is to directly mention it at the beginning.

Why Main Ideas Should be Placed in the Beginning

· It avoids frustration on the part of reader. The reader immediately grasps the idea instead of having to read countless paragraphs without understanding the main idea.

· It directly conveys the message of the writer (to do something, expectation, etc.)

· In writing chronologically, the main idea should be placed at the beginning since it would take time to know what really happened. Readers do not want a blow-by-blow account of what happened.

Chapter 4: Layout: Adding Visual Impact

Layout is “something that appears open and inviting.”[10] A good layout of a paper or work encourages readers to plough on through the paper’s entirety and also helps in the organization of thoughts and ideas.

Three Layout Techniques

· Short paragraphs: Writing through short paragraphs instead of writing a block of text encourages readers to read more in between spaces instead of having to look at text crammed in one page. The ‘text-heavy’ concept is applied in newspapers as the layout of articles is placed in between-ads or pictures so as not to appear boring.

· Headings: This provides an organized way of arranging thoughts instead of numerous paragraphs. By dividing different thoughts or ideas into ‘subtitles’, it gives a visually appealing look for the reader and also a proper organization of thoughts (e.g. newspapers, textbooks).

· Bullets/Lists: Similar with the use of headings, bullets and lists provide an organized detail of a main subject or idea rather than incorporating all ideas into a long paragraph. On the case of numbered lists, this can be used when providing steps or instructions.

Chapter Summary

Through the use of the aforementioned thought organization techniques, these methods help the writer in organizing thoughts and ideas in a manner that will catch the attention of the reader and would encourage to read on. In addition, the use of these techniques is not only applied in the business perspective but also in journalism and other forms of writing. It is important, especially on business writing, to organize thoughts or details to directly convey the message and to avoid confusion. This rule also applies to writing in general, as proper writing involves clear and concise thoughts, proper word usage, and organization of thoughts, not merely a hodgepodge of ideas.


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