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Write clearly

For years, most of us have addressed our documents mainly to technical experts and lawyers, rather than to the many other readers we want to influence. A jargon-laden, legalistic style does not clearly convey important information. You can reduce confusion or misinterpretation for all your readers without sacrificing the technical integrity of your writing.

How can you write more clearly?

Government documents such as regulations present special challenges because of the highly technical information they often contain. At the same time, you have multiple audiences, some highly knowledgeable, some less so. In fact, focus-group results show that even technical experts do not always understand technical language easily or quickly. The following techniques will help ensure that you keep your language clear, so that your users can focus on technical information.

Use short sentences

Express only one idea in each sentence. Long, complicated sentences often mean that you aren't clear about what you want to say. Shorter sentences show clear thinking. Shorter sentences are also better for conveying complex information; they break the information up into smaller, easier-to-process units. Vary your sentence structure to avoid choppiness, but don't revert to tangled multi-clause sentences. (For more about sentence structure, see "Use Short Sentences," page 13.)

Write to one person, not to a group

Use singular nouns, pronouns, and verbs to direct your writing to one individual reader. This prevents confusion about whether a requirement applies to readers acting individually or in groups. (For more about using the singular, see "Address One Person, Not a Group," page 14.)

Use the simplest tense you can

Using present tense avoids the clutter of compound verbs and clearly conveys what is standard practice. (For more about verb tenses, see "Use the Present Tense," page 15.)

Use "must" to convey requirements

Use "must" for obligation, "may " for permission, and "should" for preference. Use "may not" to convey prohibitions. Avoid the ambiguous "shall." When was the last time you heard "shall" in everyday conversation? If you must include advisory material, put it in brackets. (For more on "must" and "shall," see "Use 'Must' to Indicate Requirements," page 16.)

Place words carefully

There are several ways you can reduce ambiguity--

  • Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs.

  • Put conditionals such as "only" or "always" and other modifiers next to the words they modify. Write "you are required to provide only the following," not "you are only required to provide the following."

  • Put long conditions after the main clause. Write, "complete form 9-123 if you own more than 50 acres and cultivate grapes," not "if you own more than 50 acres and cultivate grapes, complete form 9-123."

(For more on word placement, see "Place Words Carefully," page 17.)

Use "if-then" tables

If material is particularly complex and many conditional situations are involved, put it in an "if-then" table. (For examples of "if-then" tables, see "Use If-Then Tables," page 18.)

Avoid words and constructions that cause confusion

Common sources of confusion include--

  • Undefined or overused abbreviations and acronyms

  • Two different terms used for the same thing (car, vehicle, auto, conveyance--choose one)

  • Giving an obscure technical or legal meaning to a word commonly understood to mean something different (defining "car" to include trucks)

  • Legal, technical, and "fashionable," but confusing, jargon

  • Strings of nouns forming complex constructions (surface water quality protection procedures)

  • Pronouns that don't clearly refer to specific nouns

  • Stilted, wordy language
For more on confusing words, see "Avoid Words and Constructions that Cause Confusion," page 19.)

Use contractions when appropriate

Contractions can speed reading, improve accuracy, and sometimes soften the tone of your letters.

For more about contractions, see--

"Contractions In Your Letters"