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Still excellent, but was previous edition better?
on 12 September 2013
This fourth edition of the Oxford Guide to Plain English is still an invaluable and reasonably simple handbook for anyone who has to write clearly for any audience. Its strengths are in the uncluttered advice and its "reader-centred" approach. It covers a broad range of issues, from organizing information and tight writing, to dealing with jargon. The advice applies to all kinds of writing: reports, forms, instruction manuals, legal texts, emails, web pages, and more. There are plenty of before-and-after examples, and the book offers options instead of prescribing one fixed approach.
That said, my favourite is still the 2nd edition Oxford Guide to Plain English 2nd (second) Edition by Cutts, Martin published by OUP Oxford (2007), which was much easier to read. By comparison, the book is now longer by almost a third (up from 202 pages to 288), and it is a bit larger as well as thicker -- not quite such an easy fit in the hand. The revisions in the later editions do include some more up-to-date examples, but the introduction ("Starting Points") has expanded into a treatise on why Plain English is needed, with an extended history of its development around the world. Much of that could be left out, or moved to the back of the book. The present design is also less clear. The book is printed in a strange purple, instead of the original black with blue highlights, with examples in a weak smaller type, instead of in bold. This is a pity, because a handbook like this should be easy for readers to skim to find what they are looking for. The added length and the new design undermine that.
Perhaps Mr Cutts and his publishers should have followed the book's own advice on writing economically, and using a layout that makes the words more accessible.