Sunday, April 18, 2010

Keep It Plain!

With the announcement of the Clearmark Plain Language Awards on April 29, this is a good time to trot out some tips on writing “plain” for your web audience.

I don’t care how good your website design is, if the writing is poor – if you don’t communicate with your target audience – your website fails. The most important thing you can do for your agency and your audience is spend time editing, re-writing, and testing your content with your target audience. A lot of time. Regularly.

Think what you’re trying to achieve. You want readers to understand what they read the first time through. And you want them to be able to act – correctly - on what you’ve told them.

So here are 3 practices that will help you succeed.

1.  Keep it simple. “Plain language” is just that – plain. Not fancy. Use simple words that everyone in your audience understands. That just seems so obvious to me, but it’s amazing how many times I read government websites that fail. You guys and your darned jargon.

Here’s one that always drove us crazy at HUD: “assisted housing.” What the heck does that mean? Is that another term for “assisted living?” Is that a place where someone will take care of me? When we tested it with our audience, they told us “rental help” made more sense to them. Now how hard was that?

Am I telling you to “dumb it down?” No, I’m telling you to communicate. Do you honestly think your readers run to a dictionary when they hit a word they don’t understand? No. They skip it and hope they’ll figure out what you’re trying to say or they give up and stop reading. So use simple words. Do the work. Figure out how to say it in words your audience understands.

2.  Write conversationally. Use first- and second-person pronouns: “I,” “we,” “us,” “our,” “you.” It drives me crazy when I read on an agency’s website, “the department of xyz announces…” Excuse me. Why are you talking in third person, as if I don’t exist? Talk to ME!

I’m reminded of that Seinfeld episode when the character “Jimmy” talked in third person. “Jimmy’s legs hurt. Jimmy can’t go with you today.” Poor Elaine held an entire conversation with Jimmy, thinking he was talking about another guy in the gym.

Communicating is personal. It’s between you and the reader. So when you write, think about that person who is reading it. Have a conversation – write like you’d talk. You’ll have more success getting your message across.

3.  Eliminate unnecessary words. With all due respect to my mom, who taught high school English for 35 years, here’s the truth: you don’t need to write in complete sentences to communicate a complete thought. As Ginny Redish puts it, “Let go of the words.”

Don’t include words like “that.” We know that we will

Don’t state the obvious: This website is aboutWelcome. On this page you’ll find…

Every word adds to reading time and delays action. People want to act. They want to get the answer and go do it. Make every single word count. If you don’t need it to communicate the message, get rid of it. Edit, edit, edit!

Both and the Center for Plain Language have more tips, examples, and resources. Use them. The Center for Plain Language keeps a list of people who can help you. Ask them. Offer a plain language training session at your agency. Invite everyone who writes or edits your web content routinely.

If we don’t communicate effectively, we don’t serve effectively. Keep it plain!


RedDog said...

All too often government web staff just stick up documents that were created for print. Often they weren't even good print documents, and they are even worse web documents. The government needs to get beyond this and start thinking about the needs of the site visitor.

Mike Unwalla, TechScribe said...

@Candi: Don't include words like "that." We know [that] we will...

The 3 principles of plain language that you give are good. However, minimising the number of words is not always a good strategy.

In your example, the word 'that' is a syntactic cue.

"'Syntactic cues' are function words and punctuation marks that indicate syntactic relationships. Research... has shown that readers rely heavily on these cues to help them analyze and predict sentence structure. Yet technical writers and editors routinely eliminate many of these cues from their writing in the mistaken belief that they are improving readability." ('Improving translatability and readability with syntactic cues', John R. Kohl,

For a detailed discussion of syntactic cues, read 'The Global English style guide: writing clear, translatable documentation for a global market' by John R Kohl, 2008 (

V Charrow said...


Right you are! Simplicity and clarity do not necessarily mean cutting out words.

Also, in the example that Candi gives with the words "assisted housing," I'm not even sure "rental help" explains what was meant. Does "rental help" mean "help with the rent," or "help in finding a place to rent," or help in renting out an apartment to someone else"? Noun strings--sometimes even 2-word noun strings, like "rental help"--eliminate the grammatical and semantic relationships between the nouns, which makes this type of construction difficult to decipher.