“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”
This quote by famed American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald is as true today as it was during the roaring 1920s. In a digital age when attention spans are often limited to 140 characters or less, it’s important to communicate clearly so your audiences understand your message the first (and likely the only) time they read it.
Once a notorious offender of obfuscation, the federal government is making strides when it comes to writing clearly. In fact, it’s now law. In October 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Plain Language Writing Act that asks government agencies to write “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” Ultimately, the law seeks to make government more transparent and encourage public participation and collaboration.
In response to the law, agencies throughout the federal government have developed plain language initiatives, greatly improving both print and online communication. Consider this example from a Health and Human Services brochure on weight loss guidelines:
Before plain language
“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half-hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing.”
After plain language
“Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.”
Converting government jargon into easy-to-understand phrases can be a big challenge, especially when it comes to websites, where visitors mostly scan content rather than reading it word by word.
With this in mind, here are five tips to help agencies write in plain language when communicating with their audiences online:
1. Identify your audience and mission. Make sure you know what your agency’s website mission is and who it is supposed to serve. The public comes to your site to perform a task. What is it? When writing, help them cut through the clutter to achieve what they set out to do.
2. Write content specifically for the web. Print content rarely translates well for the web. Write the clearest and most succinct statement you can think of about the topic. Use headings and bulleted lists to break up content into easy-to-scan chunks of information.
3. Use familiar words. There’s no place for flowery prose in government communication. Use strong, familiar words to communicate your message.
- No: “Commence”
- Yes: “Start”
- See more examples here.
4. Use active voice. This clearly explains who is doing what. In active voice, the person (or agency) that’s doing something is the subject.
- No: “The bill was signed into law by the President.”
- Yes: “The President signed the bill into law.
5. Avoid meaningless phrases. Remember: users come to your site to accomplish something. Don’t waste their time with phrases such as “thinking outside of the box,” and “for all intents and purposes.” Get to the point quickly.
The Plain Language Action and Information Network also offers more tips and resources.
Image courtesy of flickr user Cubosh