WRITING AND WRITERS: GUIDES AND HANDBOOKS : UNITED STATES: GOVERNMENT: Federal Plain Language Guidelines, March 2011

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WRITING AND WRITERS: GUIDES AND HANDBOOKS :

UNITED STATES: GOVERNMENT:

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, March 2011

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Federal Plain Language Guidelines, March 2011

Plain Language.gov

Improving communications from the Federal Government to the public

http://tinyurl.com/nje846n

Table of Contents

http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/FederalPLGuidelines/TOC.cfm

Introduction

Think about your audience
Identify and write for your audience
Address separate audiences separately
Organize
Organize to meet your readers’ needs
Address one person, not a group
Use lots of useful headings
Write short sections
Write your document
Words
Verbs
Use active voice
Use the simplest form of a verb
Avoid hidden verbs
Use “must” to indicate requirements
Use contractions when appropriate
Nouns and pronouns
Don’t turn verbs into nouns
Use pronouns to speak directly to readers
Minimize abbreviations
Other word issues
Use short, simple words
Omit unnecessary words
Dealing with definitions
Use the same term consistently for a specific thought or
object
Avoid legal, foreign, and technical jargon
Don’t use slashes
Sentences
Write short sentences
Keep subject, verb, and object close together
Avoid double negatives and exceptions to exceptions
Place the main idea before exceptions and conditions
Place words carefully
Paragraphs
Have a topic sentence
Use transition words
Write short paragraphs
Cover only one topic in each paragraph
Other aids to clarity
Use examples
Use lists
Use tables to make complex material easier to understand
Consider using illustrations
Use emphasis to highlight important concepts
Minimize cross-references
Design your document for easy reading
Write for the web
How do people use the web?
Write for your users
Identify your users and their top tasks
Write web content
Repurpose print material for the web
Avoid PDF overload
Use plain-language techniques on the web
Avoid meaningless formal language
Write effective links
Test
Paraphrase Testing
Usability Testing
Controlled Comparative Studies
Testing Successes
Paraphrase Testing from the Veterans Benefits Administration
Usability Testing from the National Cancer Institute

One may download the Word or PDF version of the full Guidelines.

Sampling of Contents

Think about your audience

One of the most popular plain language myths is that you have to “dumb
down” your content so that everyone everywhere can read it. That’s not
true. The first rule of plain language is: write for your audience.

Use language your audience knows and feels comfortable with. Take your
audience’s current level of knowledge into account. Don’t write for an 8th
grade class if your audience is composed of PhD candidates, small business
owners, working parents or immigrants. Only write for 8th graders if your
audience is, in fact, an 8th grade class.

Make sure you know who your audience is – don’t guess or assume.

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Identify and write for your audience

You have to grab your audience’s attention if you want to get your ideas
across. Let’s face it, people want to know just what applies to them. The
best way to grab and hold someone’s attention is to figure out who they
are and what they want to know. Put yourself in their shoes; it will give
you a new perspective. (Read Identify your users and their top tasks for
more information.)

Tell your audience why the material is important to them. Say,

“If you want a research grant, here’s what you have to do.” Or,

“If you want to mine federal coal, here’s what you should know.” Or,

“If you are planning a trip to Rwanda, read this first.”

Identifying your audience will do more than ensure that you write clearly.
It will also help you focus on the audience’s needs. Start out by thinking
about what your audience knows about the situation now. Then, think about
how to guide them from their current knowledge to what you need them to
know. To help you do this, try answering the following questions:

Who is my audience?

What does my audience already know about the subject?

What does my audience need to know?

What questions will my audience have?

What’s the best outcome for my agency?

What do I need to say to get this outcome?

What’s the best outcome for our audience?

What do I need to say to get this outcome?

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001,
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 93-96.

Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook,
1998, Washington, DC, p. 9.

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Use lots of useful headings

The best-organized document will still be difficult for users to follow if
they can’t see how it’s organized. An effective way to reveal your
document’s organization is to use lots of useful headings. Headings are
also critical for effective web pages (see Writing for the web). You
should use headings liberally on the web to help your user accomplish top
tasks.

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Write short sentences

External links are shown with a “external link icon”.

Express only one idea in each sentence. Long, complicated sentences often
mean that you aren’t sure about what you want to say. Shorter sentences
are also better for conveying complex information; they break the
information up into smaller, easier-to-process units.

Sentences loaded with dependent clauses and exceptions confuse the
audience by losing the main point in a forest of words. Resist the
temptation to put everything in one sentence; break up your idea into its
parts and make each one the subject of its own sentence.

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snip

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Sources

Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P.
Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4th edition, 2007,
Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 163-165.

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001,
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 19-21.

Kimble, Joseph, Guiding Principles for Restyling the Federal Rules
of Civil Procedure (Part 1), Michigan Bar Journal, September 2005,
pp. 56-57.
http://www.michbar.org/journal/pdf/pdf4article909.pdf
Adobe Acrobat Reader iconexternal link icon.

Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006,
Carolina Academic Press,
Durham, NC, p. 96.

Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999,
Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, p. 77.

Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, MMR-5.
http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/handbook/ddh.pdf
Adobe Acrobat Reader icon.

Redish, Janice C., How to Write Regulations and Other Legal Documents
in Clear English, 1991,
American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, pp. 29-32

Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook,
1998, Washington, DC, p. 28.

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Have a topic sentence

If you tell your reader what they’re going to read about, they’re less
likely to have to read your paragraph again. Headings help, but they’re
not enough. Establish a context for your audience before you provide them
with the details. If you flood readers with details first, they become
impatient and may resist hearing your message. A good topic sentence draws
the audience into your paragraph.

We often write the way we think, putting our premises first and then our
conclusion. It may be the natural way to develop our thoughts, but we wind
up with the topic sentence at the end of the paragraph. Move it up front
and let users know where you’re going. Don’t make readers hold a lot of
information in their heads before they get to your point.

Also, busy readers want to skim your document, stopping only for what they
want or need to know. You can help them by giving each a paragraph a good
introduction. Readers should be able to get good general understanding of
your document by skimming your topic sentences.

A side benefit of good topic sentences (and good headings) is that they
help you see if your document is well-organized. If it isn’t, topic
sentences make it easier for you to rearrange your material.

Sources

Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001,
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 65-66.

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Use examples

Examples help you clarify complex concepts, even in regulations. They are
an ideal way to help your readers. In spoken English, when you ask for
clarification of something, people often respond by giving you an example.
Good examples can substitute for long explanations. The more complex the
concept you are writing about, the more you should consider using an
example. By giving your audience an example that’s relevant to their
situation, you help them relate to your document.

Avoid using the Latin abbreviations for “for example” (e.g.) and “that is”
(i.e.).

Few people know what they mean, and they often confuse the two. Write out
the lead-in to your example: “for example” or “such as.”

The Internal Revenue Service makes extensive use of examples in its
regulations throughout 26 CFR Part 1, the regulations on income taxes. The
Environmental Protection Agency also uses examples in its regulations.
Here’s one from 40 CFR Part 50, Appendix H – Interpretation of the 1-Hour
Primary and Secondary National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone.

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snip

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Sources

Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999,
Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 45-46.

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[FROM Writing for the Web Section]

How do people use the web?

External links are shown with a “external link icon”.

People use the internet to easily find, understand, and use information to
complete a task. Unlike print media, people do not read entire web pages.
They scan instead. Nielsen and Morkes, in a famous 1997 study, found that
79 percent of their test users always scanned any new page they came
across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

Even with more people using the web, the percent of content that is read
on a website has not increased by much. Here are some facts to consider
when writing web content:

In a 2008 study, based on analysis of 45,237 page views, Neilson found
that web users only read about 18% of what’s one page.

As the number of words on a page goes up, the percentage read goes
down.

To get people to read half your words, you must limit your page to
110 words or fewer.

What do web users look at?

Since we know web users scan web pages, we need to learn what they look
at.

Users often scan pages in an F pattern focusing on the top left side of
the page, headings, and the first few words of a sentence or bulleted
list. On average, users only read the first two words on each line. Also,
users can decide in as little as five seconds whether your site is useful
to them.

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snip

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Sources

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/percent-text-read.htmlexternal link icon

http://www.customercarewords.com/what-it-is.htmlexternal link icon

Eyetracking Web Usability, New Riders Press, December 14, 2009

http://www.uie.com/articles/five_second_test/external link icon

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Write effective links

External links are shown with a “external link icon”.

Links are about both content and navigation. Effective link names are key
to satisfying your customers. The Eyetracking Studies showed links written
in plain-language were the most effective. Plain-language links are
written clearly so that the user understands exactly where the link will
take them.

Link names should be the same as the page name linked to.
Don’t use the full name of a document or program as a link name.
Be as explicit as you can-too long is better than too short.
Make the link meaningful. Don’t use “click here” or “more.”
Don’t embed links in text. It just invites people to leave your text!
Add a short description when needed to clarify the link.

Remember, some of your users might be visually disabled. Do not use “Click
Here” or “Click the green button” links. Make sure your links are
accessible to all users. You want to use links that clearly explain the
content of the page it links to. If your link says “Annual Reports,” then
destination page must be titled “Annual Reports.”

Sources

McGovern, Gerry, Killer Web Content: Make the Sale, Deliver the Service,
Build the Brand (and other works), 2006, A&C Black.

Nielsen, Jakob, Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity
(and other works), 1999, New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis.

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/nanocontent.htmlexternal link icon

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The complete publication may be viewed at the URL at the top of this post.

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Sincerely,
David Dillard
Temple University
(215) 204 – 4584
jwne@temple.edu
http://workface.com/e/daviddillard

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WRITING AND WRITERS: GUIDES AND HANDBOOKS : UNITED STATES: GOVERNMENT: Federal Plain Language Guidelines, March 2011

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