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Plain English: how it can help your job hunt

December 17, 2012

Recently, we were a finalist for the 2012 WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards. It was our third year as a finalist, and last year we won our category (best government plain English website).

What is plain English?

Plain English isn’t about “dumbing down” your writing for the lowest common denominator – it’s about getting your message across in the best way. Usually when you write something you have a goal in mind: you want to share your knowledge on a certain topic – usually with an opinion or argument you want to get across – or maybe you’re asking someone to take action. If it’s easy to understand then you are more likely to achieve your goal.

Plain English is about saying things in the most direct way, so that the reader can understand your message after only one reading. Using long sentences with multiple parenthetic clauses and loads of jargon that most of your readers won’t understand might make you think you sound smart, but all you will do is confuse your audience. Keep it simple and clear.

Plain English tips for your CV and cover letter

Writing your CV and cover letter using plain English techniques will definitely help you in your job hunt quest. Imagine you’re a manager and you get a hundred CVs to look over – will you even bother to re-read something that doesn’t make sense? Probably not, you’ll just chuck it into the no pile and move on to the next one. You don’t want this to happen to your application.

  • Use relatively short sentences: Martin Cutts, in Oxford Guide to Plain English, says: “More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.” 15-20 words on average is a good guide.
  • Use easy to understand words: This PDF from the Plain English Campaign gives plain English alternatives for words that you probably wouldn’t use in every day conversation. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use industry specific language in your CV or cover letter, in fact you’d be silly not to.
  • Remove fillers and fluff by getting straight to the point: use direct language and say what you mean.
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