A government that can’t communicate clearly with its citizens will not be able to effectively provide services or adapt to meet changing needs. That’s part of the rationale behind the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which seeks to make government communications simple and easy to understand.
If you need a refresher on what plain language looks like in practice, this post offers some quick tips and best practices that you can incorporate into your own writing.
Write for your audience
Plain language doesn’t have to mean overly simplified or basic. What’s important to consider is who the writing will be read by. If the intended audience is the general public, it should be comprehensible to them; but if it is aimed at people in certain fields, it’s appropriate to write at a more advanced level so long as they will still find it easy to understand.
Organize the information
This advice of course applies to all writing—there should be a clear topic, and especially relevant information should be featured prominently. One of the keys to achieving this can be the appropriate use of an organizational framework or markers, so that readers can see at a glance where to find the information they are looking for. For example, you might consider using bolded headlines or a larger font size.
Choose your words carefully
Unfamiliar terms and jargon should be avoided, but at the same time precision should be a primary consideration. Ensure that words are being used according to their common and accepted meanings and use terms or phrases consistently across documents or a website.
The key to good writing is editing. Remove unnecessary words and prefer shorter sentences over longer ones.
Keep it conversational
Communicating with the public means speaking their language. Use active voice, contractions, and the present tense—everything you would do if you were having an actual conversation with a citizen. Writing should feel natural as you’re doing it, and sound natural to someone when they read it.
Design for reading
Large, unbroken blocks of text can be intimidating and off-putting. Using subheadings, breaking writing up into clearly labeled sections, or using into lists can make things more appealing and easier to read. At an even more granular level, choosing a readable font and a proper size can make a big difference.
Follow web standards
Most people scan web pages rather than reading every word, so knowing where users are likely to look for key information or links can make it easier for them to find what they need. Print materials may need to be edited significantly if they are to appear on web pages, so that they’re best formatted for those used to getting their information from digital sources.
Test your assumptions
The format or content that works best may not be the first, second, or even third iteration that you come up with. The only way to establish what resonates with or is helpful to readers is by testing your content. This can be done both internally and externally, but it’s wise to begin the testing process as the content is being developed.
If you’d like to further explore plain language and its role in government communications, check out plainlanguage.gov for explanations, requirements, and advice.