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Plain Writing in One Page

Plain writing is now the law (PDF), not just a recommendation or preference.

Unlike Section 508, however, there is no penalty if we fail to uphold it. But there will be training, audits, reports, and citizen feedback on the clarity of our language. In other words, we will be held accountable. As Web content people, we should enforce plain writing as we do any other best practice.

Maddeningly, some people make plain writing complicated. No need. Follow the seven rules below and you’ll be on your way.

  1. Target your audience. This one sounds obvious, but following it is the first step toward being clear. It ensures content is organized around your users’ needs and top tasks. Personas and market research are ideal if you have time and resources, but even without them you can solve a lot of language problems by thinking about your audience from the start—and making sure authors keep users in mind along the way.   
  1. Front-load the important stuff. Use the old journalism model of the “inverted pyramid”: Start with the material that’s most important--to your audience, not stakeholders or authors. Then move on to elaboration, support, and other details.
  1. Use pronouns. The user is “you”. “We” are the federal government, agency, or other unit doing the talking. This instantly creates cleaner sentence structure and more approachable content.
  1. Use active voice. “The board proposed the regulation,” not “The regulation was proposed by the board.”
  1. Use short sentences and paragraphs. The ideal: No more than 20 words per sentence, five sentences per paragraph. Don’t use semicolons—use a dash instead. Better, break the sentence in two. It’s okay to start a sentence with “And,” “But,” or “Or” if it makes things clear and brief.
    • Cool trick: Use Word’s Readability Statistics feature [part of Spelling & Grammar check] to measure progress as you edit. Try to make your reading ease number go up and your grade level go down. Short words, sentences, and paragraphs improve your numbers. So does active voice.
  1. Use bullets or numbered lists. This makes the document easier to scan and read. And don’t reserve these tools only for long lists: One sentence and two bullets is much easier to read than three sentences.
  1. Use clear headlines and subheads. Questions, especially those with pronouns, are particularly effective. [“How do I apply for Medicaid?”]

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