Writing Reader-Friendly Documents
The traditional way of writing government documents has not worked well. Too often, complicated and jargon-filled documents have resulted in frustration, lawsuits, and a lack of trust between citizens and their government. To overcome this legacy, we have a great responsibility to communicate clearly.
Studies show that clearly written regulations improve compliance and decrease litigation. Writing that considers our readers' needs improves the relationship between the government and the public it serves. Clear writing reduces the burden on the public. It also reduces our burden because we don't have to deal with the consequences of unclear communication.
How can we be better writers?
We believe that the most important goals are these--
• Write for your reader
• Write clearly
• Write in a visually appealing style
The next several pages summarize some of the best techniques to achieve these three goals. Following the summary, you'll find detailed suggestions for applying these techniques to your writing. Write for Your Reader
Writing for your readers sends a message that you have considered who they are and what they need to know. When you communicate a concern for your readers' needs, they are more likely to be receptive to your message.
When your document is plainly written, your readers are more likely to--
• Understand what you want and take appropriate action • Focus on key information
• Believe that you are concerned with their needs
Identify your audience
Identify your audience early and think about why the reader needs to read the document. Identify people who will be interested, even if they are not directly affected. Write to everyone who is interested, not just to technical or legal experts. Keep in mind the average reader’s level of technical expertise.
Organize to meet your reader's needs
People read documents to get answers. They want to know how to do something or what happens if they don’t do something. Organize your document to respond to these concerns. Frequently this means describing events as they occur--you fill out an application to get a benefit, you submit the application, the agency reviews the application, the agency makes a decision on the application.
Think through the questions your readers are likely to ask and then organize them in that order. For regulations, you can organize them into a comprehensive table of contents that will be an outline of the document.
Use a question-and-answer format
As much as possible, write section headings as questions. Try to ask the questions your readers would ask. Answer each question immediately. Using the question-and-answer format helps readers to scan the document and find the information they want. It also increases the chances that they will see a question that they didn't have, but need to know the answer to. This format is enormously helpful to readers.
Use "you" and other pronouns to speak directly to readers
“You” reinforces the message that the document is intended for your reader in a way that “he,” “she,” or “they” cannot. More than any other single technique, using “you” pulls readers into your document and makes it relevant to them. Using “we” to refer to your agency makes your sentences shorter and your document more accessible readers.
Use the active voice
Active voice makes it clear who is supposed to do what. It eliminates ambiguity about responsibilities. Not: “It must be done.” But, “You [or someone else] must do it.” Using passive voice, which obscures who is responsible for what, is one of the biggest problems with government documents.
Use the appropriate tone
In regulations, tone is not really an issue. But the tone of other documents, such as letters, affects how well the reader takes in your message. A cold tone can cause the reader to tune out the message. In some cases, it causes him to put...
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