Guidelines for creating plain language materials

Reprinted with permission from www.plainlanguage.gov.

Identify your audience

Think about why the reader needs to read the document. Also identify people who will be interested in the document, even if they are not directly affected. Write to everyone who is interested, not just to technical or legal experts. And keep in mind the average reader’s level of technical expertise.

Write in active voice

Voice is the form a verb takes to indicate whether its subject acts or is acted upon. When the subject of a verb does something (acts), the verb is in the active voice. When the subject of a verb receives the action (is acted upon), the verb is in the passive voice.

Active voice: Conor hit the ball.
Passive voice: The ball was hit by Conor.

Because the active voice emphasizes the doer of an action, it is usually briefer, clearer, and more emphatic than the passive voice. Whenever possible, use active voice in your writings.

Keep it short!

You will communicate more clearly if you keep sentences and sections short. Aim for an average sentence length of 20 words, with no one sentence running over 40 words. Cover only one subject in each paragraph, and keep paragraphs under 10 or 12 lines.

Use personal pronouns

Help users picture themselves in the text. Pronouns help readers relate better to documents. When you address the reader as “you”, he or she feels directly addressed and is more likely to understand what his or her responsibility is. When your writing reflects this, it is more economical and has a greater impact on the reader.

Also, remember to define in the beginning of the text who the audience or “you” is.

Additional benefit: By writing your documents to be clear to an individual you will find it easier to:

  • Put information in a logical order
  • Answer questions and provide the information that your reader wants to know
  • Assign responsibilities and requirements clearly

Write in a visually appealing style

With visual layout, you draw your readers’ attention to information they need to know.

Steps to make your documents visually appealing include the following:

  • Use lots of informative headings: Make sure each heading has enough information to help your reader understand the content of the paragraph or section.
  • Write short sections: Short sections break up the material into easily understood segments. They also look easier to read and understand.
  • Use vertical lists: Vertical lists highlight a series of items in a visually clear way. Use vertical lists to help your reader focus on important material.

Don’t be wordy

Omit needless words. Excess or elaborate words make your writing weaker. Government writing is often too wordy. Here are some examples of excess words in our writing and plain alternatives:

Original: At the present time, the FAA in accordance with new regulations will on a monthly basis conduct random security checks in the event that there is a terrorist alert.

Revised: The FAA under new regulations will conduct monthly random security checks if there is a terrorist alert.

Excess words Plain Alternatives
accordingly so
addressees you
as a means of to
as prescribed by in, under
at a later date later
at the present time now, currently
commence begin, start
constitutes forms, makes up
for the purpose of to, for
heretofore until, now
in accordance with under
in order to to
in the event that if
on a monthly basis monthly
pertaining to of, about
related to of
so as to to
should it appear that if
with regard to about

Structure your writing

How you organize the document and what headings you include are extremely important in determining what effect your document will have on its readers. To achieve the highest rate of comprehension from your readers, here are some guidelines on structure:

  • put the main message first
  • divide your material into short sections
  • group related ideas together
  • put material in an order that makes the best sense to the reader
  • use lots of headings

Use graphics and tables

Use figures such as charts, tables, and other illustrative material as examples to explain complex material. Mention or introduce every figure in the text before it occurs and place the figure close to the text that explains it. Try to limit figures to one page. For figures that extend to more than one page, repeat the name and figure number on each page. Make sure all figures have informative headings.

Original: We must receive your completed application form on or before the 15th day of the second month following the month you are reporting if you do not submit your application electronically or the 25 th day of the second month following the month you are reporting if you submit your application electronically.

Revised: We must receive your completed application form on or before the following dates:

If you submit your form… We must receive it by…
electronically the 25 th day of the second month following the month you are reporting
other than electronically the 15th day of the second month following the month you are reporting

Use parallel phrasing

State related ideas in similar grammatical form. Paralleling your language brings your thoughts together and makes it easier for your reader to understand the document. It is also a device for balancing lists:

Correct:

The FAA conducted the seminar carefully, skillfully, and wisely.

Or

The cafeteria is available to directors, personnel, and interns.

Incorrect:

The FAA will not be able to complete the new facility until they (1) show funding is increasing, (2) make the administrator and the board understand the cost benefits of the facility, (3) about contracts that are still being discussed, (5) that the employees are backing up the decision.

Correlative conjunctions are another form of parallelism. Use them to frame matching parts. The four most common pairs are these:

both–and
either–or
neither–nor
not only–but also

Do not use and/or

This is a formula that indicates items joined by it can be taken either together or as alternatives. Using the devise and/or makes the meaning of a document unclear. Why use two words where one would do? Most of the time you mean either “or” or “and” but not both. So, before writing your document, decide what you want to say and whether “and” or “or” will fit your meaning. Then choose one!

Occasionally you do need both.

The facility has a strict security policy. The more identification you have the better. I advise you to bring your license or your birth certificate, or both.

Avoid “shall”

Shall is an ambiguous word. It can mean must, ought, or will. While shall cannot mean “should” or “may,” writers have used it incorrectly for those terms and it has been read that way by courts.

Using the word “must” is the clearest way to convey to your readers that they have to do something.

Don’t use unnecessary qualifiers

They add no additional meaning to a sentence. The classic example from everyday language is “very dead.” Here’s some examples we see in FAA writing:

Their claim was totally unrealistic
We are completely convinced
It is definitely worth experiencing
Work in partnership with
Additional requirements needed to provide a level of safety
Maintain successful bilateral agreements

Don’t use multiple negatives

When you can put a negative statement as a positive one without changing the meaning of it, do it. You’ll save readers from unnecessary mental work. Using more than one multiple negative muddles the meaning of a document. Accentuate the positive when you can.

Original: No changes will be made to the Department of Transportation’s regulations unless the administrator reviews them and concludes that they are not lacking any important information.

Revised: Changes will be made to the Department of Transportation’s regulations only if the administrator reviews them and concludes they are lacking important information.

Avoid redundancies

To make an idea clear, you don’t need to state it in as many ways as possible. Using different words that mean the same thing can actually make your document harder to understand. To avoid repetition, if you are thinking of describing something with two words that have the same meaning, use the word that sounds more powerful.

Original: Because you are alumni, you should help aid the new incoming freshman.

Revised: Because you are alumni, you should help the incoming freshman.

Test your document

Plain language includes all techniques used for clear communication. When writing any type of document, a questionnaire, manual or legal document, test your plain language document on typical readers. Giving the reader a short comprehensive text will help you identify if your document is user-friendly or easily comprehended. Analyzing the samples will give you an idea of what areas in your document need editing or a change in organization, design, writing and wording. It’s especially important to test documents that will be used by many readers, such as forms, standard letters, and regulations.

Center for Plain Language (centerforplainlanguage.org)

http://centerforplainlanguage.org/about-plain-language/guidelines-for-creating-plain-language-materials/

Printed April 16, 2014

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