Kung Fu Secrets of B2B Copywriting: When to Write Plainly

If you want to understand the effect of sentence structure, the Plain English Campaign’s style guide is a surprisingly good place to start.

Writing plainly is not an end in itself. But it’s a good point to start from – not least in B2B marketing copy which, if we’re honest, does have a tendency to disappear into its own crevices from time to time.

I’m amazed by how often – and how warmly – I find myself recommending the Plain English Campaign’s own style guide, “How to write in plain English”.

OK, before you make me turn in my copywriters’ badge and ceremonial quill, hear me out.

Because while it’s true the PEC’s general tone is pretty strident (they’re “fighting” against “drivel” and “gobbledegook”) the style guide itself is much more balanced, and helps to explain the difference between different kinds of vocabulary and sentence structure.

So where you might expect the campaign to yell “PASSIVE SENTENCES ARE BAD, M’KAY?” (and, in fairness, the section heading does sort of do that) the guide gives you a really good example of where you might use one, and why.

Likewise, there are lots of handy rules-of-thumb, like using nominalised verbs (specifically, words ending in “ion”) as a flag that your sentence might be prone to an unnecessary degree of complication. Or, as they put it:

“The problem is that often they are used instead of the verbs they come from. And because they are merely the names of things, they sound as if nothing is actually happening in the sentence.”

Which is a really nice, well thought-out explanation.

There’s a LOT more to good copywriting than plain English. But a lot of B2B marketing makes me think copywriters should be issued this guide on day one.

Here’s a summary of the presentation:

At first glance, you might perceive the Plain English Campaign as a far-out, Daily Mail/Daily Express complaining-about-things type of organisation… but the writing guide on their website is really good.

Now, plain English is not an end in itself, but it’s a good starting point. And if you go to the campaign’s website – and go past all the stuff where they’re dismissing people’s writing as drivel – you’ll find the how-to guide as a PDF. It’s really useful.

The good thing about it is, it doesn’t talk in terms of right and wrong. It says “this kind of writing is appropriate for this context and that kind of writing is appropriate for that context.”

So, for example, it talks about nominalised words. Generally, nouns that have “-ion” at the end — like “nomination” or “conclusion” and things like that — aren’t wrong in themselves, but are a signal that the sentence you’re writing it in is probably more complicated than it needs to be.

“They took a vote at the conclusion of the meeting.”

You could just say “at the end of”, or “after the meeting”, or whatever.

It’s full of nice little tips and nuggets like that: flags that your sentences may be quite formal.

If you Google “‘Plain English Campaign”’— and I think there’s a whole section about guides there — it’s a little PDF document.

Another thing it says is it talks about active and passive sentence structure.

Active sentence structure: “David bored the crowd senseless.”

Passive sentence structure: “The crowd was bored by David.”

Active sentence structure is a lot more direct and punchy, so it’s usually preferable, but not always. Sometimes it’s polite to use the passive sentence structure because it softens things. So instead of saying, “We noticed you haven’t paid your bill,” you might say, “We noticed this bill has not been paid.”

You know, it’s just nicer, and the nice thing about the Plain English Campaign guide is it does make distinctions like that. “In this kind of setting you use this phrase, that kind of setting you use the other one.”

Want more copywriting tips?

Check out the next video, and find out why you should show, rather than tell in your copy.

(Or watch the full Kung Fu Copywriting playlist here.)

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