How plain English can improve your job applications

roadsign saying 'keep clear'Using long words and business jargon is the way to impress recruiters, right? Well, maybe not. Simple and direct is the best way to write a CV or covering letter, or to fill in an application form. This is where ‘plain English’ can help you.

The concept started in the UK civil service, as a way of making their documents more user-friendly. The UK-based organisation the Plain English Campaign took up the idea in the 1970s and since then plain English has got into all areas of writing.

Don’t worry, it’s not about banning long words or throwing out the grammar book: it’s about clear communication. The Plain English Campaign defines plain English as ‘writing that the intended audience can read, understand and act upon the first time they read it’.

‘Acting upon it’ – if it means offering you an interview – is exactly what you want. And think about that phrase ‘the first time they read it’. Yours is not the only CV in the pile and recruiters just don’t have time to read that pile more than once.
Using plain English techniques can help you get your message across effectively. And someone who has this kind of control over their writing is always going to impress employers with their communication skills.

This may take some practice, and it may mean rethinking the way you’ve been used to writing. The academic system, after all, can lead people to write in a complicated manner. But a job application is not an essay: it has a different purpose and needs a different approach.

A good starting point is the Plain English Campaign website, which has several free guides including advice on letter writing and CVs.

Techniques include using short sentences and straightforward words, cutting padding, using active verbs, and avoiding abstracts and clichés. A good rule of thumb that will help you avoid meaningless buzzwords is to think about what you actually want to say; then say it. Be as clear as possible, and as specific as possible.

Here are some ‘before and after’ examples that you might find in a cover letter:

Does ‘I am contacting you with regards to the position advertised by yourselves’ sound like the way you usually talk? How about ‘I am writing about the job you advertised’?

And when it comes to signing off… ‘Should you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me’ sounds old fashioned. ‘Please contact me if you need any more information’ sounds better. But think about whether you actually need to say this. They will contact you anyway if they need to, won’t they?


One Comment on “How plain English can improve your job applications”

  1. Beverly says:

    Writing in plain English will also mean that you’ll be more likely to write actively than passively, and will end up including more active verbs, too – so go for it. Just make sure you don’t end up writing in an over-familiar way.


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