Federal Plain Language Guidelines

Although oriented towards helping U.S. government employees write clear regulations, the Federal Plain Language Guidelines offers great advice for any nonfiction writer. It includes a section on writing content for web sites.

Here are some highlights.

Address one person, not a group. Remember that even though your document may affect a thousand or a million people, you are speaking to the one person who is reading it. When your writing reflects this… [it] has a greater impact.”

Organize to meet your readers’ needs… Think through the questions your audience is likely to ask and then organize your material in the order they’d ask them. For regulations and other complex documents, create a comprehensive table of contents. Your table of contents should be a reliable road map that users can follow to quickly find the information they need.”

Limit levels to three or fewer. Crafting documents with four, five, or even more levels makes it difficult for your audience to keep track of where they are in the structure of your document. You should address this problem in your initial structuring of the document. Dividing your document into more pieces at the top levels should allow you to limit subdivisions below the major level to two.”

Use lots of useful headings. The best-organized document will still be difficult for users to follow if they can’t see how it’s organized. An effective way to reveal your document’s organization is to use lots of useful headings. Headings are also critical for effective web pages… A document with lots of informative headings is easy to follow because the headings break up the material into logical, understandable pieces… Headings should not be so long that they overwhelm the material in the section itself. Avoid headings with one-word answers. With rare exceptions, headings should be shorter than the content that follows them.”

Use ‘must’ to indicate requirements. The word ‘must’ is the clearest way to convey to your audience that they have to do something. ‘Shall’ is one of those officious and obsolete words that has encumbered legal style writing for many years… Many legal scholars have written about the problem of ‘shall.’

Avoid double negatives and exceptions to exceptions… Many ordinary words have a negative meaning, such as unless, fail to, notwithstanding, except, other than, unlawful (un- words), disallowed (dis- words), terminate, void, insufficient, and so on. Watch out for them when they appear after not. Find a positive word to express your meaning.”

Place the main idea before exceptions and conditions. When you start a sentence with an introductory phrase or clause beginning with ‘except,’ you almost certainly force the reader to re-read your sentence. You are stating an exception to a rule before you have stated the underlying rule. The audience must absorb the exception, then the rule, and then usually has to go back to grasp the relationship between the two. Material is much easier to follow if you start with the main idea and then cover exceptions and conditions.”

Have a topic sentence… We often write the way we think, putting our premises first and then our conclusion. It may be the natural way to develop our thoughts, but we wind up with the topic sentence at the end of the paragraph. Move it up front and let users know where you’re going. Don’t make readers hold a lot of information in their heads before they get to your point.” This also helps readers skim your document.

Nothing is more annoying than cross-references. “Most users consider them a bother, and just skip over them. This can be a problem when the document is a regulation. Numerous cross-references can confuse users and make them less attentive to your message. They may also overtax your users’ short-term memory… On the other hand, repeating bulky material over and over can be equally annoying to users. So there is a place for cross-references, but the challenge is to not overdo them… The ‘Boomerang’ [is a] particularly insidious cross-reference. It’s a reference that refers to the section it’s found in.”

People do not read entire web pages. They scan instead. Nielsen and Morkes, in a famous 1997 study, found that 79 percent of their test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word… Here are some facts to consider when writing web content:

  • In a 2008 study, based on analysis of 45,237 page views, Nielsen found that web users only read about 18% of what’s [on the] page.
  • As the number of words on a page goes up, the percentage read goes down.
  • To get people to read half your words, you must limit your page to 110 words or fewer.”

Testing your documents should be an integral part of your plain-language planning and writing process, not something you do after the fact to see if your document (or your website) is a success. It’s especially important if you’re writing to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.” The authors discuss three types of tests:

  • One-on-one paraphrase testing sessions with users work best for short documents, short web pages, and when testing the questions on a survey. Paraphrase testing will tell you what a reader thinks a document means and will help you know if the reader is interpreting your message as you intended… Ask the participant to read to a specific stopping point, known as a cue. Each time the participant reaches a cue, ask the participant to tell you in his or her own words what that section means. Take notes, writing down the participant’s explanation in the participant’s words. Do not correct the participant. When you review your notes later, wherever participants misunderstood the message, the document has a problem that you should fix…
  • Usability testing is the best technique for documents where people have to find the information before understanding it…
  • Controlled comparative studies (especially for paper documents) are best near the end of the process. This is because controlled testing will tell you if the new document is a success, but it won’t tell you why it is or isn’t a success… Before you do a controlled comparative study, you should do paraphrase testing or usability testing and change you document based on what you learn in these smaller scale studies.”

The Federal Plain Language Guidelines helps U.S. government employees comply with the Plain Writing Act of 2010, although it was first developed in the mid-1990s. The document is periodically updated by the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), which is made up of employees from multiple federal agencies.

Federal Plain Language Guidelines, Washington, DC: United States Government, revised 2011. The 118-page PDF can be downloaded for free.