Corporate document

Rules of clear writing

Know your reader

At NICE we are often writing for an expert audience. But this does not mean they want to read complex, technical writing. In fact, research shows that the more educated the person, the greater is their preference for clear English.

We also communicate with members of the public who may not just want to read our 'Information for the public' guides, particularly if they are commenting on a guideline during consultation.

So, when you are planning your work, ask yourself:

  • Who will be reading what I write?

  • Why are they reading it?

  • How much do they know about the subject already?

  • What do I want them to do with the information they read?

Plan ahead

Before you write anything, take a few minutes to jot down notes about what you want to say. Ask yourself:

Have I included all the essential information?

Do I answer: who, what, when, where, why and how?

What is the best structure for the document?

Make sure you put the information in a logical order. Write a brief outline with the main headings and subheadings, and what you plan to include under each one. Keep sections short and make sure you get your main message across in the title and first paragraph. Think about the inverted pyramid structure used in a news story – that means putting your main conclusions first to grab people's attention.

How will the document be presented?

Bear in mind that when people read on screen they scan the text in broad sweeps and may not read every word. Use your headings, subheadings and bullet lists to break up the text and help people find the information they need.

Keep it short

Remember to:

  • use short sentences: 15–20 words is ideal, 30 words is the maximum

  • restrict yourself to 1 main idea per sentence

  • avoid unnecessary words and phrases

  • avoid repetition

  • read what you've written out loud – does it sound right?

Check for unnecessary words

Sometimes we use extra words or phrases that don't add anything to the meaning, often to sound more important or add emphasis.


Patients can be treated at home.

Not: Patients can be treated in the home setting.

Many patients do not understand what is happening to them in hospital.

Not: Many patients do not understand what is happening to them in a hospital environment.


If someone with this condition needs hospital admission, this should be under the care of a consultant with specialist training.


In circumstances where someone with this condition needs hospital admission, it is recommended that the patient be admitted only under the care of a team led by a consultant who has been trained in the management of the condition during his/her higher specialist training.

Unnecessary adjectives

Adjectives and adverbs (describing words) are subjective, can dilute your meaning and add to your word count.


There is little indication that this new approach is related to better overall self-management.

For some people, it may be very difficult and overwhelming to disclose details of their traumatic events.

Use an apostrophe to keep sentences shorter


The guideline's recommendations do not override the healthcare professional's responsibility to make appropriate decisions.

Not: The recommendations in the guideline do not override the personal responsibility of healthcare professionals to make appropriate decisions.

Use 'you' and 'we'

Where possible, use 'you' and 'we', particularly when giving advice. It is shorter and friendlier.


When guidance is issued we will post it on our website.

Use bullet points

Bullet points are a useful way of:

  • presenting a series of points simply and clearly

  • cutting out repetition

  • breaking up long or complex sentences and paragraphs.

Use clear English

Using clear English has the advantage of saving time because it is shorter. It means using as few words as possible to get your point across, while leaving no room for ambiguity.

Avoid abbreviations

Text with a lot of abbreviations is hard to read and many readers will have to look them up. Only use them if the abbreviation is more commonly used than the spelt out version (see the style guide). Always spell them out the first time.

Never abbreviate NICE terms, such as guideline committee and final appraisal determination. You may know what the abbreviation means – someone outside your team may not.

Avoid unnecessary technical language

Technical terms include the names of diseases, tests and treatments. It is fine to use some technical terms in a document for researchers and specialists. But only use a term if you are sure your audience will understand it, and if there is no simple alternative. If you can think of an everyday word, always use that instead.

Avoid jargon

Jargon means using words or phrases as a kind of shorthand that members of a particular group will understand. These words are often meaningless in any other context.

'Office' jargon, or management-speak, can easily creep into our writing. Words like 'cascading', 'incentivise' and 'repurposed', and phrases like 'drill down', 'blue sky thinking', 'touch base' and 'going forward' are meaningless and overcomplicate things. Usually they can be deleted without changing the main message.

Use simple, everyday words and phrases

Are you using a complex word or phrase when a shorter one will do? Here are some common examples.



A large number of

Many, a lot of







At the time that


Behind schedule


Commence, initiate

Start, begin





Discontinue, terminate

End, cancel, stop


Let, allow, help





In excess of

More than, over

In the process of


In spite of the fact that

Even though, although, despite

Prior to




Should you


The majority of




With the exception of




Avoid vague or ambiguous words

Think about whether your meaning is clear from the word you are using. Use the most specific term you can.

Words like 'access', although commonly used, can be ambiguous. Does it mean availability of services, eligibility for referral, geographical location or transport? Make sure the meaning is clear to your reader.

'Appropriate' is often used in phrases such as 'offer appropriate advice on diet and exercise'. We would never recommend offering inappropriate advice, so we do not need to specify that it should be appropriate. If we know people are giving the wrong advice, it is better to spell out exactly what the right advice is.

Use a logical sentence structure

Put the key point first in your sentence.


Although a small percentage take longer, most people can return to work within 4 weeks.

Better: Most people can go back to work within 4 weeks, although a small percentage take longer.

Even better (with shorter everyday words): Most people go back to work within 4 weeks, although a few may take longer.

Stay active

Passive sentences can sound long, stuffy and bureaucratic, whereas active sentences help you get your message across quickly and clearly. In active sentences, the subject is the person or thing doing the action and all the verbs are used as doing words.

1. One option is to move the person or thing doing the action to the start of the sentence:

For example: Pharmacists will help smokers to quit the habit.

Not: Smokers will be helped to quit the habit by pharmacists.

2. But whenever you can, put the action up front and use a direct instruction. The person doing the action is not stated but it will be assumed it is the reader.


Priority groups to be offered advice should be specified on the basis of a local assessment of health needs.

Better: Use a local assessment of health needs to specify priority groups that should be offered advice.

Even better: Use a local health needs assessment to identify groups who should receive advice as a priority.

Avoid turning verbs into nouns

Another way to keep your writing active is to avoid turning verbs into 'zombie' nouns.

For example: Managing this condition is complex.

Not: The management of this condition is complex.