3 Lessons from the Clearmark Plain Language Awards

The 2012 Clearmark Plain Language Awardshave been announced. As a 3-time judge for the government web and media entries, I have to tell you – this is a stellar group. The quality of entries in this awards program has improved by leaps and bounds, over the past 3 years. The winners give government agencies some wonderful models for plain writing.

As I judged this year’s entries, I noted three important lessons:

1. Calling something an “e-newsletter” does not mean you can ignore the rules for plain writing. Some agencies are publishing “e-newsletters” as summaries of current issues or news. They’re typically 1-pagers of 2-3 blurbs. Remember this: no matter what you’re publishing on the web, you have to make content scanable and easy for web readers to use. No “walls of words.” Use shorter paragraphs than you’d use in print publications. Use bullets and sub-headers to break content into pieces that the web reader can see and understand quickly. Strip out unnecessary lead-ins and wordiness. No matter what you call it, if you publish it on the web, it needs to be easy to scan.

2. Write and design informational videos as carefully as you would a website. Video can be a very good way to convey information, but remember that web visitors are impatient. If you want to get a point across in a video (just like in writing), get rid of anything that isn’t essential to communicating the point. No need for those intros by agency heads (viewers see them as “commercials”). Break up long videos into shorter segments if you’re trying to cover several subjects or points. Give viewers time to absorb one topic at a time. Edit, edit, edit. Just like written content, if you use too many words – especially if those words are jargon or unfamiliar to the intended audience – viewers lose interest and leave.

And one more thing about web videos – make sure you really need them. Yes, a picture can be worth a thousand words if it shows people how to do something or adds new information. But posting a video that simply replicates what you’ve already said on the page is not only redundant, it actually can make your audience mad at you for wasting their time.

Like all web content, test your videos. Don’t be satisfied if your audience tells you they like your video. Did they understand it? Can they use what they got from it?

Which brings me to the most important lesson…

3. Usability testing matters! The winning entry in the government web/media category was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Outdoor Air Quality site. They did so many things right, from words to format. And they got it right because they did extensive usability testing. The CDC understands that you must test, rewrite, redesign, and retest continuously, to have a great website (including web video).

The Clearmark Plain Language Awards showcase the best, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to look through this year’s award winners. Encourage your agency web writers to look at them, too. Talk about what makes them good and how you might use those examples to make your own site better. The real value in these awards is to stimulate others to improve.

Thank you to the Center for Plain Language for presenting the Clearmark Awards. And congratulations to the winners! You did a great job.

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