The plain style of writing lies between the flat and ornate styles. As its name indicates, it is not verbose or needlessly complicated. Nor is it dull or bland. It is characterised by clear syntax, precise word choice, natural emphasis and unobtrusive grammar. The plain style is effective, economical and useful. Its great versatility means that it can accommodate just about any stylistic flourish, linguistic device and authorial personality – but with restraint rather than indulgence.
We’re not born with an innate ability to read. Without education and its application, these letters and marks would make no sense to us. We’ve trained our brains to decode languages – to convert squiggles on a page or screen into sense in our minds. The neurobiological machinery required to perform this decoding is complicated enough; it is made even more complicated by gobbledygook.
The plain style puts less strain on the brain. It’s relatively easy to read, and has minimal jargon and ambiguity. Its punctuation serves the text rather than interfering with it. It uses the most appropriate words and structures to get the writer’s points across with little fuss and affect. Sense flows from the text, instead of being hidden in it or obscured by it. The reader doesn’t waste time re-reading sentences in search of subjects, predicates, points and meaning – these are already clear. The hard work has already been done.
Rewriting comprises much of this work, because the plain style does not emerge automatically: it requires attention and application. Often it’s only when we look back at our writing that we notice imprecision, filler phrases, lack of ‘flow’ and other shortcomings. Then we need to analyse, prune, re-arrange and variously modify our writing to optimise its intended effect, which is usually some form of communication. The plain style can be strong, succinct, graceful and unpretentious, and is therefore very well suited to formal writing.