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Editing your documents into plain English Most organisations take their documents for granted. They get so used to them that they stop seeing them from the reader's point of view. Unfortunately, if your documents are unclear, or contain mistakes in spelling or punctuation, the cost to your organisation can be enormous.

Our editing service is the ideal way for you to make sure that your documents are clear and user friendly, and present the right image. Readers quickly give up if they find a document difficult to understand, or if it's hard to find the information they need. We'll look at your documents from the readers' point of view, and make life as easy as possible for them.

Our service is quick, inexpensive and aimed at giving you the documents you want and need. We're not fussy or pedantic, and our key aim is to make sure your documents are appropriate for your audience.

We've worked with banks, building societies and insurance companies; with law firms, small businesses and charities; with local councils, the NHS and with big government departments such as the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We've edited documents aimed at doctors, barristers and homeless people; at council tenants and pharmacists; at veterinary surgeons and hospital outpatients. And we've been doing this for over 20 years.

So what do I need to do?

Just send us your document or documents and we'll get back to you with a free quote within one working day. Or call 0114 257 1400 and ask for Dave Fox.

Can I get my documents accredited for plain English?

Yes. Our plain English approved logo tells your readers at a glance that your documents will be easy to read and understand. Or you can opt for our committed to plain English logo which tells everyone that your organisation is working hard to provide clear information.

Click the 'get accredited' icon to the right to find out more about our logo schemes.

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Are your documents damaging your chances of success?

Why is it important that your documents are clear and easy to understand? In other words, why is it important that you use plain English?


* The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations, 1999

If there are any problems with your documents, people are unlikely to give you the benefit of the doubt. Today's readers want information quickly and don't expect to have to read anything more than once. If your website, letters, leaflets or forms aren't clear, many of your potential customers will simply stop reading, or will struggle to access the services you offer. Sadly, the people who need these services the most are often the ones who are excluded most easily.

If your documents are in plain English you will be doing your customers and your organisation a favour.

So use plain English – you'll do more business, improve your customer relations, and save time and money.

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Because it's so easy to get used to the documents you see every day, many organisations have a blind spot when it comes to their own communications. The following article describes how easily this can happen and how hard it can be for decision makers to realise that there's something wrong.

Article – Our communications are fine. It's everyone else's . . .

. . . by Dave Fox, Senior Partner at the Word Centre

Dave Fox, Senior Partner at the Word CentreA few years ago a large UK financial institution asked me to help them put their communications into plain English.

As part of my investigations – and to get their co-operation – I had a chat with each of the organisation's department heads. There were 30 of these, at just below director level, and between them they oversaw all the organisation's operations.

Of all the things we discussed, two questions I asked and the answers I received still stand out for me today:

  1. How clear and effective do you think the communications are that the people in your department produce?
  2. How clear and effective do you think the communications are that the people in other departments produce?

In answer to question 1, without exception they rated their own department's communications at 8 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10.

So pretty good, eh? With that sort of rating from every department head you could be forgiven for wondering why I was there.

But when they answered question 2, without exception they rated every other department's communications at about 3 or 4 out of 10. And they had plenty of adjectives to go with the rating: 'sloppy', 'badly thought out', 'full of jargon', 'incomprehensible', 'ungrammatical', 'riddled with errors' and so on.

Blind spots

I'm sure you don't need me to point out that the two answers aren't compatible. You can't have 30 departments all producing communications that leave little room for improvement, and those same communications being regarded as rubbish by 29 out of 30 department heads. No, it's that age-old problem of people being so close to their own communications that they cannot step back and view them from the reader's point of view. But if you move just a short step sideways in an organisation, even people with a huge amount in common (same industry, same organisation, same goals and beliefs) will look at those same communications and see all the flaws that outsiders see.

We humans often reveal 'blind spots' when judging ourselves. We're all great drivers, for example – it's everyone else that's the problem.

As I say, this is an age-old problem and it was no surprise to me that the department heads thought their own communications were better than everyone else's. The significant thing was to see this illustrated so starkly – all 30 of them had exactly the same view. (Although most of the communications they saw from other departments would be internal ones, they also saw a good number of their customer communications too.)

People often criticise the internal communications they see. A large proportion of people complaining about jargon on social media such as Twitter are referring to internal communications.

So what does intrigue me is this:

Are communications somehow exempt from the standards and quality control that organisations have for other things? What car manufacturer would produce a car that didn't steer properly, or had a fuel cap you couldn't remove? Yet for many organisations, their documents are their 'products' and they aren't fit for purpose.

It's not just humans that have blind spots – organisations have them too.

Missed opportunities

So how had the organisation in question even realised it had a problem?

During the first meeting I had with them they told me that they were looking at this issue because their chief executive's elderly mother had received, as a customer, 'the proverbial snotty letter from us'. The letter was meant to be helpful, but the impression it gave was anything but. So she showed the letter to her daughter, who immediately realised that her organisation had a problem.

Organisations should always listen to their customers, but it obviously helps when you're the CE's mother. Had the complaint come from anyone else, and via any other route, I doubt that the organisation would have sprung into action quite so dramatically.

I wonder how many organisations – every day – miss this sort of opportunity to act because the complaint comes from an 'ordinary' customer.

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Article – A few hints on planning and organising information . . .

. . . by Dave Fox, Senior Partner at the Word Centre

Dave Fox, Senior Partner at the Word Centre We rightly put a lot of emphasis on writing style. Unless your style is clear and straightforward there is a good chance that your readers will give up very quickly. But it's just as important to plan your message and organise it in a logical way that will make sense to your reader.

If you are about to write a more complex document such as a report you may have collected a huge amount of information. You need to decide which information to include, and which to leave out. What are the key pieces of information, and what order should I put them in? What recommendations should I give the reader? You need to answer these questions before you begin to write.

Mind-mapping can be a great planning aid, because you begin with the central idea and then group key ideas around it. To each key idea you then attach related sub-points. In this way you can organise ideas quickly based on their relationships to each other. You also begin to see the actual report structure emerge, down to paragraph level or perhaps even sentence level. This makes your report so much easier to write.

Planning in more detail

Once you have planned your document there are several ways to organise the information in each part of it. These are:

A document may use more than one of these structures. For example: a report investigating failures of procedure may give a chronological account of the incidents so far. It would then perhaps go on to explain the failures in terms of their functional causes, and then give most desirable to least desirable solutions.

Using the 'inverted pyramid' method

This is a great technique for organising an article, a short report or a section in a report, or even just a paragraph. It's used by many journalists. It helps to grab the reader's attention by giving them the most important (or newsworthy) information first. This is followed by the next-most-important information, and so on, until items of minor detail are left until the end of the article or can be edited out altogether.

Diagram showing the inverted pyramid method

Using this method means that people are more likely to start reading an article/paragraph, and that if they are in a hurry they can easily find the most important information.

The examples below show the difference between articles structured using the inverted pyramid method and ones written in chronological order.


Chronological Inverted pyramid

When electricians wired the head office of the Midland Insurance Company some years ago, they neglected to install sufficient insulation at a point where the wires crossed a heating pipe in the basement.

Over the years, expansion and contraction of the pipe rubbed away at the insulation and a short circuit occurred early this morning.

Contact with the gas pipe created a blaze which ignited the woodwork. The flames worked up through the basement stairway and soon the entire lower floor of the office block became an inferno.

The finance director and visiting IT staff on sabbatical were working hard on the second floor. They had no means of escape and perished in the flames.

Twelve employees of the Midland Insurance Company died today in an office blaze. Those killed included the finance director and visiting IT staff.

The fire began in the basement, where, it is believed, faulty electrical wiring caused a short circuit near a heating pipe.

Flames worked up through the basement stairway and spread through the entire lower floors of the office block, trapping the staff on the second floor.

Chronological Inverted pyramid

In 2016 the head office of the Uptown Bank will be moving over to a purely wireless network.

Work begins in January and by mid-June all users will have converted to the new system.

The cost of removing the existing cables and providing the wireless infrastructure will be 350,000.

It is expected that the annual saving on routine maintenance and cabling repairs will be 120,000.

This means that the new system will pay for itself in less than three years.

Uptown Bank expects to save over 120,000 a year following a change-over to a purely wireless network.

The system will cost 350,000 to introduce and so will pay for itself in under three years.

The savings will arise because the bank will no longer need to maintain and repair network cables.

Work begins in January 2016 and will be finished by mid-June.


Planning and plain English go together

Your writing style is important of course. Short sentences, active verbs and familiar language will help your reader understand the material quickly. However, good organisation gives them a clear path through the information. Without this, they may still fail to get the most out of the document. People often stop reading because they 'can't see where the document is going'.

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