Plain language helps you convey complex information. Your readers understand and get what they need quickly, with fewer questions and less confusion. As a government, using plain language will help you improve your services, forms, and public information.
Benefits of plain language:
- Helps people know what information means the first time they read it.
- Makes services easy to use.
- Is easier to translate into other languages.
- Reduces calls and emails with clarification questions.
In this post, we’ll discuss how to write in plain language.
Organize information logically
Your information should be easy to follow. If you are explaining a process, use chronological order to describe the steps.
Lead with the most important message
Start with your most important message and make sure it’s not buried in your page.
Consider a webpage with information about vaccines and your agency wants to encourage people to get them. The first message on your page should be:
A safe, effective, no-cost vaccine is available to everyone. Getting vaccinated can prevent you from getting the virus. It can also protect those around you from getting infected.
Chunk your content into sections
Break up your content into sections that make it easy for the reader to find the information they are looking for quickly. Don’t overwhelm your reader with more than one topic in a section.
Vaccines are free and you do not need insurance to get the vaccine. You can get a vaccine regardless of your immigration status. You can ride the bus or train to and from your vaccination appointment for free. Just show your appointment confirmation to the driver.
Vaccines are free.
You do not need insurance to get the vaccine.
You can get a vaccine regardless of your immigration status.
You can ride the bus or train to and from your vaccination appointment for free. Just show your appointment confirmation to the driver.
Use helpful headings
Use concise and descriptive headings. Headings should not be so long that they overwhelm the rest of the content, but they should be clear. You can use topics, questions, or statements.
- Are you eligible?
- See if you’re eligible.
Lists highlight and help your reader focus on important information. Use numbers if there is a sequence or chronological steps, otherwise use bullets.
- Healthcare workers
- Residents of long-term care facilities
- People 65 years and older
- Age 16-64 with severe, high-risk medical conditions
- Age 16-64 with significant, high-risk disabilities
Use simple and direct words
Use common and familiar words instead of the obscure. Here are some words to substitute with more familiar words.
|by means of||by, with|
|disseminate||give, issue, pass, send|
|in a timely manner||on time, promptly|
Avoid jargon and acronyms
Don’t use industry-specific terms or acronyms. If a fifth grader won’t be able to understand, use a different word. If you must, define the term or spell out the acronym.
MPHD will provide free vaccinations at the PHDS located at 555 Sea View Road. Please bring ID verification and documentation that demonstrates restaurant industry employment eligibility requirements.
If you work at a restaurant, you can get a free vaccine from the Public Health department at 555 Sea View Road. Bring:
- Photo ID (such as a driver’s license or passport)
- Proof of work eligibility (such as a work ID badge, letter from your employer, or paystub)
Avoid hidden verbs
A hidden verb is a verb turned into a noun. They often follow verbs like make and take. They often end in -ion and -ment.
We will make an announcement on Monday about new vaccine eligibility criteria.
On Monday we will announce new vaccine eligibility criteria.
Short sentences are easier to read. Long, complex sentences are the most common problem in government writing. The first step to making your writing more concise is to break up long sentences.
The next step is to remove words. Here are some things to look out for:
- Redundant words (like repeat again, circle around, exact same)
- Unnecessary modifiers (adverbs like actually, simply, really, totally)
- Wordy phrases (like in order to, at the present time, due to the fact that)
Use “you” and other pronouns
Address your reader with “you” so they understand what they need to do and how the information relates to them. Define “you” so they know if it applies to them.
Use other pronouns such as “I,” “we,” and “us” to add clarity and assign responsibility. Using “we” for your government agency also makes you more approachable.
Example uses of pronouns
- If you work in a restaurant, you can get a vaccine.
- Am I eligible?
- We will add more appointment slots on Friday.
- Your health and safety is important to us.
Use active voice
Active voice also helps clarify who is supposed to do what. Sometimes passive voice is appropriate. Often it obscures information about who is responsible for doing something.
The following documentation must be provided at the time of appointment to satisfy eligibility requirements.
You must show the following documentation at your appointment to prove you are eligible.
Use examples to clarify complex concepts. Think of how you might explain something to someone in a conversation. An example helps the reader understand how the information relates to them.
If you are fully vaccinated, you can gather indoors with unvaccinated people without masks if they are from one household. For example, you can visit with your grandchildren.
Plain language and clear writing is crucial in government communications. It improves the effectiveness of government services and increases public trust.
Your content will be easier to understand if you break up long sentences, remove redundant words, and use a conversational tone. Your writing will be more clear if you use pronouns, the active voice, and examples.