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Update: Federal Plain Language Guidelines – March 2011

by | Mar 2, 2011 | Plain Language Writing Courses, Writing Matters Blog | 0 comments

Many thanks to the folks at PlainLanguage.gov who have just updated their Federal Plain Language Guidelines and published them at their site. I'm so excited about this wonderful resource that I'm presenting the entire Table of Contents here so you can easily click through. You can also download the Guidelines (PDF). I hope you'll use these Guidelines to nurture clear writing in your organization or to help you develop a style guide of your own.

Federal Plain Language Guidelines


  1. Think about your audience
    1. Identify and write for your audience
    2. Address separate audiences separately
  2. Organize
    1. Organize to meet your readers' needs
    2. Address one person, not a group
    3. Use lots of useful headings
    4. Write short sections
  3. Write your document
    1. Words
      1. Verbs
        1. Use active voice
        2. Use the simplest form of a verb
        3. Avoid hidden verbs
        4. Use "must" to indicate requirements
        5. Use contractions when appropriate
      2. Nouns and pronouns
        1. Don't turn verbs into nouns
        2. Use pronouns to speak directly to readers
        3. Minimize abbreviations
      3. Other word issues
        1. Use short, simple words
        2. Omit unnecessary words
        3. Dealing with definitions
        4. Use the same term consistently for a specific thought or object
        5. Avoid legal, foreign, and technical jargon
        6. Don't use slashes
    2. Sentences
      1. Write short sentences
      2. Keep subject, verb, and object close together
      3. Avoid double negatives and exceptions to exceptions
      4. Place the main idea before exceptions and conditions
      5. Place words carefully
    3. Paragraphs
      1. Have a topic sentence
      2. Use transition words
      3. Write short paragraphs
      4. Cover only one topic in each paragraph
    4. Other aids to clarity
      1. Use examples
      2. Use lists
      3. Use tables to make complex material easier to understand
      4. Consider using illustrations
      5. Use emphasis to highlight important concepts
      6. Minimize cross-references
      7. Design your document for easy reading
  4. Write for the web
    1. How do people use the web?
    2. Write for your users
    3. Identify your users and their top tasks
    4. Write web content
    5. Repurpose print material for the web
    6. Avoid PDF overload
    7. Use plain-language techniques on the web
    8. Avoid meaningless formal language
    9. Write effective links
  5. Test
    1. Paraphrase Testing
    2. Usability Testing
    3. Controlled Comparative Studies
    4. Testing Successes
      1. Paraphrase Testing from the Veterans Benefits Administration
      2. Usability Testing from the National Cancer Institute
Tags: Government web writing, Plain language, Style guides


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