The traditional way of writing government documents has not worked well. Too often, it has
produced complicated, jargon-filled documents that have resulted in frustration,
lawsuits, and a lack of trust between citizens and their government. To overcome this
legacy, the documents writers have a great responsibility to communicate clearly.
Studies show that clearly written regulations improve compliance and decrease
litigation. Writing that considers our readers' needs and draws them into the regulatory
process improves the relationship between the government and the public it serves. Clear correspondence reduces the
burden on the public. It also reduces the burden on the agency because we don't have to deal with the consequences
of unclear communication.
How can we be better writers?
We believe that the most important goals are these--
- Engage your reader
- Write clearly
- Write in a visually appealing style
The next several pages summarize some of the best techniques to achieve these three
goals. Following the summary, you'll find detailed suggestions for applying these
techniques to your writing.
You will also find a letters button on various pages of the plain English handbook on letters and regulations. Click the
letters button to read about the guidance.
"Guidance on Writing Letters"
Summary of Techniques
Engage your readers
Engaging your readers sends a message that you have considered who they are and what they need to know. When you communicate a concern for your readers' needs, they
are more likely to be receptive to your message.
When your document is plainly written, your readers are more likely to--
- Understand what you want and take appropriate action
- Focus on key information
- Believe that you are concerned with their needs
How can you engage your readers?
You engage readers by speaking to them directly and clearly and by organizing your
message in a structure that reflects their interests. Here are some key ways--
Identify your audience
Identify your audience early and think about why the reader needs to read
the document. Identify people who will be interested, even if they are not directly
affected. Write to everyone who is interested, not just to technical or legal experts.
Keep in mind the average reader's level of technical expertise. (For more about identifying
your audience, see "Identify Your Audience," page 7.)
Organize to meet your reader's needs
People read documents to get answers. They want to know how to do something or what happens
if they don't do something. Organize your document to respond to these concerns. Frequently
this means describing events as they occur--you fill out an application to get a benefit, you
submit the application, the agency reviews the application, the agency makes a decision on the
Think through the questions your readers are likely to ask and then organize them in that order. For regulations, you can organize them into
a comprehensive table of contents that will be an outline of the document. (For more information about organizing, see "Organize Your Documents Carefully," page 8.)
Use a question-and-answer format
As much as possible, write section headings as questions. Try to ask the questions your readers would ask. Answer each question immediately.
Using the question-and-answer format helps readers to scan the document and find the information they want. It also increases the chances that they will see a
question that they didn't have, but need to know the answer to. This format is
enormously helpful to readers. (For more about this format, see "Use a Question-and-Answer Format," page 9.)
Use "you" and other pronouns to speak directly to readers
"You" reinforces the message that the document is intended for your reader in a way that "he," "she," or "they" cannot. More than any other single
technique, using "you" pulls readers into your document and makes it relevant to them. (For more about using "you," see "Use 'You' to Speak to the Reader," page 10.) Using "we" to
refer to your agency economizes words and makes your document more accessible to the reader.
(For more about using the pronouns "I" and "we," see "Use Pronouns to Represent the Reader and to Refer to Your Agency," page 11.)
Use the active voice
Active voice makes it clear who is supposed to do what. It eliminates ambiguity about responsibilities. Not: "It must be done." But, "You [or
someone else] must do it." (For more about active voice, see "Use Active Voice," page 12.)
Use the appropriate tone
In regulations, tone is not really an issue. But the tone of a letter affects how well the reader takes in your message. A cold tone can cause the reader to tune out the message.
In some cases, it causes them to put down the letter rather than attempting to read it at all. The tone of your letter will be determined by who your reader is and what his or her circumstances are.
For more information about how to determine the appropriate tone and how to create it, see--
"Tone in Your Letters"
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--
(For more on word placement, see "Place Words Carefully," page 17.)
- 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."
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 some times soften the tone of your letters.
For more about contractions, see--
"Contractions In Your Letters"