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UK election 2015: analysing the writing style of the manifestos
The writing styles used, the choice of words and the complexity of the sentences all vary widely from party to party. There is also a marked difference between the style used by the parties who have dominated Westminster in recent years and the relative newcomers who seek to topple them. Some also appear prone to making basic grammar and punctuation mistakes.
Emphasis analysed the writing in the manifestos from each of the parties that took part in the first televised debate on 2 April (the Conservatives, the Greens, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party and UKIP).
We took a 1,000-word sample from each, starting at the beginning of the same section (education). We then ran that sample through the writing analysis that we use with everyone we train. We examined in detail not just grammar and punctuation but the complexity of the words and sentences used. We also looked at how academic or people-centred the writing was.
The results revealed some striking differences.
Source: Emphasis Training
Labour had the highest number of grammar and punctuation errors. At 11 per thousand words, it was significantly ahead of SNP – its nearest rival for this dubious honour – which had nine. By comparison, the Conservatives had just one such error per thousand words.
UKIP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru have all tended to use long sentences, which often contain a multitude of ideas. In many cases, these begin with lengthy explanations before stating what they are actually trying to say. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have done the opposite – favouring shorter, simpler sentences – with the Tories taking the middle road.
The Green Party, Plaid Cymru and SNP manifestos use more superfluous words than the other parties. But the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats appear to have been much more disciplined. Each sentence is pared down, apparently for maximum impact – suggesting they have been through a strict editing process.
All parties have used short words (of around only five letters, on average). But it’s the number of words that differs: many parties have used more than they needed. The result is dense documents that policy wonks may love but that may fail to connect with voters.
Some also lapse into party-speak. Labour refers to ‘Government’, rather than the Government, for example. It also talks about ‘early-years intervention’. Again, this is the kind of language beloved of think tanks and policy specialists, but it’s unlikely to connect with a wider audience.
The Greens and Plaid Cymru tend towards a more passive, sometimes quite anonymous style. In their sentences, for example, they often leave out who or what will take the action they describe (eg ‘will be introduced’, ‘effectively used’, ‘would be given freedom’). This use of what grammarians call the passive voice is the natural style of academics and policy specialists.
But many of the parties appear to have made a conscious effort to connect directly with a less academic audience. Labour, the Tories, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all use very people-centred language. Labour, for instance, uses the word ‘people’ in the second sentence of the chapter analysed. The SNP goes one better, writing the more emotive ‘young people’ in the first. Plaid Cymru also balances out its slightly academic style by putting the word ‘people’ in the first sentence of the section analysed.
Perhaps the biggest language surprise is in the Tory document. Theirs is the only one that addresses the reader directly (in grammar terms, the ‘second person’). This is the grammatical equivalent of the method used by Ed Miliband in the first debate, when he looked straight into the camera to speak to the audience viewing at home.
What can we conclude from this analysis? These results would seem to reveal a marked difference in style across the parties – but particularly between the traditional parties and the rest of the field. The total scores for the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were all in the thirties or forties. As a result, these parties are much more likely to connect with their audience (through their manifestos at least). In contrast, the scores for UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP were all in the high fifties or low sixties.
The less academic style of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats could be down to their in-depth experience of fighting national elections, which has given them more opportunity to fine-tune their message for public consumption. It certainly displays more confidence in their messages. It is, of course, also possible that these parties have more editing help at their disposal.
Reports have claimed that the Conservatives were still rewriting their manifesto just a week before they were due to launch it. So it is also possible that their style of addressing voters directly was influenced by Labour’s approach to the first televised debate.
Effective writing is all about putting your readers first. That means thinking about not just their interests but the kind of language that’s likely to connect with them.
This can be a challenge when you’re surrounded by heavyweight policy documents, not least because it’s all too easy to succumb to using the same style. But it’s critical if you want to get your point across. Use jargon, by all means, but only if you’re certain that your readers use it too.
Also, make sure there’s a logic to how you write: write what, then why or how. (Many of the parties featured here do the opposite.) Use active language, which means writing who or what will take each action first (eg ‘Everyone will continue to get free healthcare’).
Finally, make sure your punctuation and grammar don’t let you down or – worse – confuse your reader.