Anyone who writes for federal websites has heard about Plain Language. At least I hope so since federal websites are mandated by law, to write in Plain Language.
On June 1, 1998, President Clinton issued an executive memo requiring agencies to write in plain language. Several statutes have also admonished agencies to write certain types of documents in plain language. In 2004, an inter-agency task force working on behalf of the Office of Management and Budget called for federal websites to be written in plain language. Most recently, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, requiring agencies to write in plain language. – Plainlanguage.gov
Purpose of Plain Language
The purpose of Plain Language is to make sure your users understands what they read the first time they read it.
Your content is written in Plain Language if your users can find what they need, understand it, and know what to do with it.
That seems basic, common sense, even. I know. Because you know what that also sounds like? It sounds just like best practices for writing for the web. Plain Language is just the government’s name for web writing best practices.
“I sure wish this was more difficult to understand.”
Said no one ever. The goal is simplicity and creating easy to understand content. Which should be easy, right? But it’s A LOT more work to write something the way your users (or audience) will understand when it seems so obvious to you.
If you’re an expert in a topic (or a federal employees), you probably write pretty terrible stuff for the non-experts. Your audience doesn’t know what you know and they don’t need to know everything you know.
Throwing information at people does NOT equal communication. No one is going to complain if you make your content easy to read, even smarty pants folks with above average vocabularies.
When writing for the web (whether it be federal websites, ecommerce, or other), two things to keep in mind:
- HOW users read online (quickly scanning for quick, easy to digest information)
- The average U.S. literacy rate (it’s about 9th grade level…that’s right, unless you’re writing for academia or a highly technical audience, you’re probably writing for the average 14-year-old).
So much content on websites doesn’t get to the point and sounds more like a computer rather than a conversation…you know, it doesn’t sound human. Though, some computer algorithms are getting really good at producing content that sounds pretty darn human. But not the point.
When writing content, particularly instructional stuff, I’ve always found it helpful to ask: How would I teach it to someone who knew absolutely nothing about the topic?
General Tips & Reminders on Writing Plain Language (for the Web)
- Basic structure
- Sentences = 15-18 best, 25 words max
- Paragraphs = 3-5 short sentences max
- Headings 3-5 per page
- Check readability level
- Design is as important as content, so give thought to your layout (columns are the easiest to read online).
- Know your audience and organize around their needs. It’s helpful to briefly explain who should read it and under what circumstances.
- Use active voice.
- Use pronouns.
- Use positive language. (Tell people what they CAN do rather than what they CANNOT do. For example, if you tell people they cannot wear togas to the office, and leave out any other problematic wardrobe choices, like kilts, you can’t be too surprised if someone comes to the office channeling their inner William Wallace. I’ve seen it happen.)
- Avoid jargon; use common words.
- Be concrete; avoid ambiguity (e.g., several, soon, many).
The 3 Little Words Everyone Wants To Hear
It’s still all the rage even if some of the rules of the game have changed: Search. Engine. Optimization. SEO is one of the best reasons to stick with clear, concise, easy to understand content, whether you call it Plain Language or simply web writing best practices.
A Few Plain Language Resources