5 plain language tips for your agency

5 plain language tips for your agency

By Paul Lester

Previously, we discussed how using plain language best practices can help agencies improve communication, lead to greater transparency and encourage public participation.

In addition to benefiting citizens, plain language is also a law. Since the Plain Language Writing Act was signed in 2010, results have been mixed when it comes to agencies implementing plain language both in print and online. The Center for Plain Language analyzed and graded 12 agencies on their ability to clearly communicate to the public. The group found that while some agencies – such as the Department of Agriculture – are making forms and other information easier to understand, others – such as the Department of Veterans Affairs – still have room for improvement.

In the spirit of plain language, here are a few simple techniques that can help you convey your message:

1. Must use “must.”  Using “must” instead of verbs such as “shall” or “will” indicates something or some action is required. “Shall” or “will” leaves too much open to interpretation and are more common in legal documents.

2. Verbs, yes. Nouns, no.  Turning nouns into verbs, or nominalization, complicates sentences. Active verbs help you get your point across clearly and boldly.

  • No: The agency conducted an investigation into the incident.
  • Yes: The agency investigated the incident.

3. Hype up hyperlinks.  Rather than quoting or repeating text in a referring document or website, link to it. This not only reduces excessive words, but it also helps eliminate duplicate content throughout agency websites. Also, never use the phrase “click here” when linking to content. This is bad for usability and 508 compliance because it doesn’t clearly explain where users will be sent. Instead, use phrases that are a call to action and accurately describe the content users will see when they click on the link.

4. Hooray for headings!  Effective use of headings can help organize and break up large chunks of information, making content easier to scan and read.

5. Spell out acronyms.  Acronyms are sometimes unavoidable when describing government programs and services. Always write out the first reference in full and place the abbreviation in parentheses. For the second and subsequent references, use the acronym.

Image courtesy Flickr user Caleb Roenigk

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