Plain language writing is a skill, and most governments don’t do it well

Posted on March 14, 2024

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Information on your government website is the foundation of your customer service. If it’s easy to understand and accurate, you’ll save time and build trust.

Government website projects typically focus on a new content management system and a new design. Content is often an afterthought. Departments are usually left on their own to manage the information on their pages.

Issues departments face:

  • People are not assigned to do this work and don’t view it as part of their job
  • People who update website do not write the content
  • No one knows how to write good website content

Most people in government write with complex sentences and technical jargon. This kind of writing:

  • Alienates most of the public
  • Doesn’t translate well in other languages
  • Leads to a lot of confusion

What is plain language?

Plain language is writing that is clear, straightforward, and concise. It’s understanding something the first time you read it.

Readers understand and get what they need quickly. They have fewer questions and less confusion.

It’s the difference between this sentence:

Pursuant to state statute 55.2(b), all canines exceeding the age of four months within county limits must be registered and licensed annually with the Department of Animal Control, ensuring proper identification and facilitating rabies vaccination verification.

And this:

All dogs over 4 months old need a license every year. Get one from Animal Control to make sure your dog has an ID and is up-to-date on rabies shots.

Why this really matters

Over 10% of Americans live with a cognitive disability, like ADHD or dyslexia. Long sentences and complex phrases are very hard for them to understand. They often have to re-read sentences several times.

When you are stressed, your brain can function in some ways like having a cognitive disability. In a 2022 study about stress, about 20% of adults reported the inability to concentrate. And, in my experience, most people interacting with the government are stressed.

Plain language also helps with:

  • Limited literacy
  • English as a second language
  • Language translation

When people don’t understand

When people have a hard time understanding your information, they:

  • Give up and might not do something at all
  • Misunderstand and do the wrong thing
  • Call, email, or visit City Hall in-person to ask questions
  • Lose trust in your organization

Plain language is clear writing—it’s not “dumbing down.” It makes your content more accessible to everyone.

Plain language training for everyone in your organization

Government website and digital content should be in plain language.

So should:

  • Staff reports for public meetings
  • Letters and notices to the public
  • Reports and memos
  • Internal communications

Plain language is an upskilling opportunity to help your organization communicate better.

We partner with ProudCity to offer 2 plain language trainings:

  • Plain language 101: For anyone who writes content for your organization, including but not limited to the website.
  • Plain language 201: For anyone who regularly writes or reviews content and already understands plain language basics.

Register for plain language training.

Learn more

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