Plain Language on the Web
Dr. Annetta L. Cheek, Chair, Center for Plain Language
1. History of plain language
2. Definition of plain language
3. Key plain language guidelines
4. Center’s award program
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Plain Language in government
• Some activity as early as the 1960s
• Carter executive order rescinded by Reagan
• Clinton presidential memo and guidelines
• Gore’s no gobbledygook awards
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What is Plain Language?
Material is in plain language if readers can
• Find what they need
• Understand what they find
• Use it to fulfill their needs
And they should be able to do this the first time
they read or hear it!
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Think about your
• You must understand your audience’s
knowledge of and familiarity with a topic.
• What is plain language for one audience may
not be plain language for another audience.
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Overview of Plain Language
None of the techniques we’ll discuss
define plain language – rather, they are
ways to achieve plain language
Together, these techniques help you be
clear and concise.
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Lists and tables
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Abbreviations, jargon, legal terms, Latin
Information the audience doesn’t need
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You can get more information
About these techniques, and more, at Federal
plain language guidelines.
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Some of the most useful techniques
• Strong verbs in active voice
• Lists and tables
• Eliminating excess information and
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Use strong, active verbs
• The best sentences follow the model you
first learned in school.
• Subject, verb, predicate – Who, does what, to
what or whom.
We published the new report.
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Passive voice, hidden verbs, and complex verb
forms make your writing weak and confusing.
In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is
not the actor. The actor comes later, often in a
prepositional phrase, or there may be no actor
identified at all.
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Some passive voice
The training was originally developed for
employees by the Office of Human Resources.
(Office of Human Resources is the actor, prepositional
The Office of Human Resources developed this
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This website has been created to acquaint you
with purchasing and contracting programs. (no
We created this website to tell you about our
purchasing and contracting programs.
But I’d eliminate this sentence – on the web,
just tell them, don’t make a big deal of what you
are about to tell them.
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A series of open government initiatives have
been developed with the express intent of
enabling the delivery of our strategic plan. (No
We’ve developed some open government
initiatives to help deliver our strategic plan.
Do you really “deliver” a plan? Do they mean
distributing it to people? I doubt it.
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The closure process is being improved to cut
down on the red tape necessary to modify the
boundaries of the closure area. (No actor
We’re improving how we close bases to make it
easier to change the boundaries of the closure
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Use pronouns to speak to the
• Research shows that people relate better to
information that talks directly to them by using
• Using general nouns such as “beneficiary” or
“purchaser” requires the audience to
“translate” before they can be sure you are
talking to them.
• Government writers seem to be allergic to
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From a census bureau page –
Response to both is required by law.
You must respond to both.
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The applicant will be the primary source of
information regarding his or her circumstances
for the purposes of determining eligibility and
We get most of the information we need to
determine whether you are eligible from your
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• Make it easy to take in complex material at a
• Make it easy to locate specific provisions
• Save words.
• Make your logic and structure clear.
• Allow audiences to focus on the material that
applies to them.
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But tables can be a problem on
Be careful—make sure
• Browsers preserve your formatting
• The table doesn’t require horizontal scrolling
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The “if-then” table is one of the most useful and
• List the audience type or condition in the first
column (“if” this applies).
• List the consequence of being in a particular
audience type or under a particular condition in
the next column (“then” this applies).
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We must receive your completed application
form on or before the 15th day of the second
month following the month you are reporting if
you do not submit your application
electronically or the 25th day of the second
month following the month you are reporting if
you submit your application electronically.
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We must receive your completed applica-
tion form on or before the following dates:
If you submit We must receive it by...
electronically the 25th day of the second
month following the month
you are reporting.
other than the 15th day of the second
electronically month following the month
you are reporting.
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Eliminate excess information and
• You should constantly challenge yourself to
make your content shorter.
• Sometimes this means getting rid of
• Sometimes it just means cutting out
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• Too much government content is about the
government – not the citizen!
• Site visitors don’t care what you did 10 years
ago, or last year, or that you won an award, or
that you have an exciting new program.
• Site visitors want something from you now, as
quickly and easily as possible.
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Welcome to the U.S. Census Bureau Business
Help Site. This site is designed to provide
information for businesses to aid completion of
surveys and forms. Information includes
frequently asked questions, online services
such as form emails and time extensions, as
well as other sources of assistance.
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Get help with your business census forms:
• View a list of forms
• Read frequently asked questions
• Apply for an extension
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The Open Door Initiative is a program based on
a simple and fresh attitude: that the CMS
desires to better hear and interact with those
beneficiaries, providers, and other stakeholders
interested in the delivery of quality healthcare
for our nation's seniors and beneficiaries with
disabilities. This increased emphasis on
responsiveness is captured through an ongoing
series of 'Open Door Forums' that provide a
dialogue about both the many individual service
areas and beneficiary needs within CMS.
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We want to hear from you!
Help us improve our service to you.
Attend an Open Door forum near you.
For information about upcoming forums, visit
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• Both of these examples show a common
problem of federal websites – too much chat
about the agency, lack of customer focus.
• Forget about your agency – just deliver
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Too many words
• Not all wordiness comes from talking about our
• More often, writers just use 10 words where 5
• It’s easier to write the 10 words than to take the
time to pick the right 5 – getting rid of words is
• Talking about all the techniques for getting rid
of words could take a day-long presentation.
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Security Notice for Visitors to the Embassy and the
In order to ensure everyone's safety and to ensure that security
screening does not delay entrance in to the Consulate and
planned interviews, no electronic devices, including cell
telephones, may be brought into the Embassy or Consulate. Large
backpacks, suitcases and glass containers are also not permitted.
Security personnel will not store items for applicants and will
confiscate all weapons. We therefore suggest that all such items
be left at home, in a locked car, or with a friend or relative who
remains outside the premises.
Documents relevant to the visa and/or passport application are the
only items that we encourage applicants to bring with them.
Your cooperation will help to ensure everyone's safety and will
help us to ensure that we are able to interview you as quickly as
possible. (131 words)
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What’s the point of this discussion?
• We want everyone to be safe.
• We want the process to go quickly.
• There are certain items you can’t bring into the
• There’s no place to store them.
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Security Notice for Visitors to the Embassy and the
To ensure everyone's security and speed processing,
you may not bring the following items into the
• electronic devices, including cell telephones
• large backpacks and suitcases
• glass containers
• weapons of any type
Staff at the gate cannot store any items for you, so
leave them home.
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In an effort to help applicants prepare for their disability
interviews and improve the initial disability claims taking
process, a new adult and a revised child disability
starter kit have been developed. The disability starter
kits contain general information about the disability
programs and decision-making process, and specific
information about the documents and information we
will request. The kits also provide links to online
applications, including the i3368 and the i3820.
Beginning April 5, 2004, a kit will be sent to an
applicant when an appointment is made to file for
disability benefits. (93 words)
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What are the main points?
• We’ve developed new starter kits with some
• You can apply on line.
• We’ll send you a starter kit when you make an
appointment to apply.
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New disability starter kits for adults and children
• our disability programs
• how we decide on your benefits
• what information we’ll need from you
• how to apply on-line
We will send you a kit when you make an
appointment to file for disability benefits. (50
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Center’s award program
• Center for Plain Language has an awards
• ClearMark award for outstanding examples of
communication, including web.
• WonderMark awards for all that terrible stuff we
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• Watch for nominations for next year’s
WonderMarks to open in June.
• Nominations for ClearMarks will open in
• Find more information at
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Where to get more information
• NIH has a free on-line plain-language training
• For a half day of training at no charge, email
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Plain Language and
May Web Forum Call
May 20, 2010
Sandra Williams Hilfiker, M.A.
Office of Disease Prevention & Health
• Background and Buy-In
• Research & Some Example Findings
• Content Development Process
• Health Literacy Online: A Guide to Writing
and Designing Easy-to-Use Web sites
Making the Case
• More Americans are expected to
take responsibility for managing
• Current online health information
landscape creates as much
confusion as support.
• Majority of Americans struggle with
• Achieving Healthy People
-Improve Health Literacy
-Improve Web site Quality
Skipping Instead of
• Read every word on the page
• Skip over entire chunks of dense text
– < 3 lines of text triggered skipping
– Numbers, %, big words triggered skipping
• Start clicking on links instead of reading
• May land in the middle of the page
Users did read this
Users didn’t read this
Finding: Limited Working
• Information Overload – takes
concentration and effort to read the text on
• Less likely to remember content from
previous pages and are rarely looking
ahead or back on a page
• Difficulty making the connection between
the results page and the data they entered
on the previous screen
Tone and Style
• Use everyday language and examples.
• Give users positive reasons to change their
• Avoid blanket recommendations – be
• Tell users how to do the behavior. Break it
down into small steps.
• Don’t dwell on barriers. Provide tools and
Content Gathering &
• Gather Web resources from across the
government and vetted nonprofits (linked to on
healthfinder and/or Medline Plus)
• Synthesize the content found and rewrite based
on template and style guide
– Can be a major task—e.g.healthfinder catalogs 90
resources on physical activity alone
SME Review &
• Know the research and best practices
• Writing, layout, navigation, & content
expertise go hand-in-hand
• Choose your writer carefully
• Test and re-test (if you have a limited
budget--do small studies)
Health Literacy Online: A Guide
to Writing and Designing Easy-to-Use