U.S. Department of Commerce

About Us

Why Use Plain Language?

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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 Link to a non-federal Web site

10 Steps to Plain Writing

  1. 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.
  2. Organize your thoughts
    • Even experts prefer clearly written documents.
    • What questions will your audience ask?
    • Make sure your audience can find what they need.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Proofread
    • Review with a pair of fresh eyes—wait two or more days to review or ask a peer to edit.

Use this

  • Must
  • Try
  • Start
  • Show, prove
  • Rank
  • End, cancel
  • Use
  • In
  • Ask for

Not that

  • Shall
  • Attempt
  • Commence
  • Demonstrate
  • Prioritize
  • Terminate
  • Utilize
  • Set forth in
  • Solicit

For more examples, go to: http://go.usa.gov/G2o

Plain language…

  • 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


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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Application Services Division | Last Revised: December 04, 2012