U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Skip Header

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. www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/writing.html Link to a non-federal Web site


Ten 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 Not That
  • Must
  • Try
  • Start
  • Show, prove
  • Rank
  • End, cancel
  • Use
  • In
  • Ask for
  • Shall
  • Attempt
  • Commence
  • Demonstrate
  • Prioritize
  • Terminate
  • Utilize
  • Set forth in
  • Solicit

For more examples, go to: 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.
  • is a whole process.
  • is NOT just using pronouns in a “question and answer” format.

Plain Language at Census: www.census.gov/about/policies/plain_writing.html

“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.” -Albert Einstein


Back to Header