Why Use Plain Language?
Our readers are busy. They want to scan, not read. About 79% of users scan new pages they come across; only 16% read word-by-word. Plain Language saves money, increases efficiency, and reduces the need for clarification.
Morkes, J., and Nielsen, J. (1997). Concise, Scannable, and Objective: How to Write for the Web. http://www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/writing.html
10 Steps to Plain Writing
- Know your audience
- Think of why your audience needs to read the document.
- What does my audience already know?
- Write to everyone who is interested, not just technical experts.
- Organize your thoughts
- Even experts prefer clearly written documents.
- What questions will your audience ask?
- Make sure your audience can find what they need.
- Summarize main points
- Highlight main points with headers and lists.
- Provide links to more information when necessary.
- Writing an e-mail? Put conclusions in the first paragraph so readers are sure to notice them.
- Write short sentences and paragraphs
- Do not use unnecessary words just because they make you sound authoritative.
- Each paragraph should have one topic sentence and develop one idea.
- In documents, the average sentence length should be 20 words; 15 on the Web.
- Use every day phrases and words
- People relate better to information that talks directly to them.
- Meaningless words and phrases waste space and your reader’s time.
- Eliminate unnecessary words - An absolute success, completely finished, tentatively suggest.
- Minimize “Census-speak”
- Acronyms are not unique. Don’t assume your reader knows them all.
- Don’t use more than two or three abbreviations in each written document.
- Avoid bureaucratic and legal language — “promoting an informed and inclusive multicultural society.”
- Use strong subjects and verbs
- Write the action(s) you want the reader to take.
- Use active voice to make clear who is responsible. Passive voice confuses the reader.
- Keep the subject and verb close together to avoid confusion.
- Define uncommon terms
- Acronyms and abbreviations distract the attention of your reader.
- Define uncommon terms and use them consistently.
- Define acronyms more than once. If necessary, provide a glossary.
- Use headings, lists, and tables
- Headings and lists help your audience find the material they want quickly.
- Use tables and illustrations that visually engage your audience.
- Make sure that all the items in a list start with the same part of speech.
- Review with a pair of fresh eyes—wait two or more days to review or ask a peer to edit.
- Show, prove
- End, cancel
- Ask for
- Set forth in
For more examples, go to: http://go.usa.gov/G2o
- is NOT imprecise.
- is NOT an attempt to dumb-down information.
- does NOT strip out necessary technical and legal information.
- is NOT only editorial “polishing” after you finish writing.
- It’s a whole process.
- is NOT just using pronouns in a “question and answer” format.
Plain Language at Census: http://www.census.gov/aboutus/plain_writing.html
“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.” -Albert Einstein