1. Overview 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 down your document rather than attempting to read it at all. Select the tone based on who your reader is and what his or her circumstances are. Write Clearly For years, most of us have addressed our documents mainly to technical experts and lawyers, rather than to the many other readers we want to influence. A jargon-laden, legalistic style does not clearly convey important information.
You can reduce confusion or misinterpretation for all readers without sacrificing the technical integrity of your writing. How can you write more clearly? Government documents such as regulations present special challenges because of the highly technical information they often contain. At the same time, you have multiple audiences, some highly knowledgeable, some less so. In fact, focus-group results show that even technical experts do not always understand technical language easily or quickly. The following techniques will help ensure that you keep your language clear, so that your users can focus on technical information.
Use short sentences Express only one idea in each sentence. Long, complicated sentences often mean that you aren’t clear about what you want to say. Shorter sentences show clear thinking. Shorter sentences are also better for conveying complex information; they break the information up into smaller, easier-to-process units. Vary your sentence structure to avoid choppiness, but don’t revert to tangled multi-clause sentences. Write to one person, not to a group Use singular nouns, pronouns, and verbs to direct your writing to one individual reader.
This prevents confusion about whether a requirement applies to readers acting individually or in groups. Use the simplest tense you can Using simple present tense avoids the clutter of compound verbs and clearly conveys what is standard practice. Use “must” to convey requirements Use “must” for obligation, “may” for permission, and “should” for preference. Use “must not” to convey prohibitions. Avoid the ambiguous “shall. ” When was the last time you heard “shall” in everyday conversation? Place words carefully There are several ways you can reduce ambiguity– • Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs.
• Put conditionals such as “only” or “always” and other modifiers next to the words they modify. Write “you are required to provide only the following,” not “you are only required to provide the following. ” • Put long conditions after the main clause. Write “complete form 9-123 if you own more than 50 acres and cultivate grapes,” not “if you own more than 50 acres and cultivate grapes, complete form 9-123. ” Use “if-then” tables If material is particularly complex and many conditional situations are involved, put it in an “if-then” table. Avoid words and constructions that cause confusion.
Common sources of confusion include– • Undefined or overused abbreviations and acronyms • Two different terms used for the same thing (car, vehicle, auto, conveyance–choose one) • Giving an obscure technical or legal meaning to a word commonly understood to mean something different (defining “car” to include trucks) • Legal, technical, and “fashionable,” but confusing, jargon • Strings of nouns forming complex constructions (surface water quality protection procedures) • Pronouns that don’t clearly refer to specific nouns • Stilted, wordy language Use contractions when appropriate.
Contractions can speed reading, improve accuracy, and sometimes soften the tone of your documents. Write in a Visually Appealing Style We want our documents to help readers get information, comply with requirements, and apply for benefits with the minimum possible burden. Visually appealing documents are far easier to understand than more traditional styles. Traditional government documents are often dense and confusing. Replace blocks of text with headings, tables, and more white space. You will help your reader by making the main points readily apparent and grouping related items together.
Use a clear and uncrowded presentation and your readers will be more likely to understand what you want to convey. In turn, your readers will be more likely to do what you want them to do in their dealings with your agency. How can you make your documents visually appealing? With visual layout, you draw your readers’ attention to information they need to know. Even though various government requirements, such as the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) format, constrain government writers in a number of ways, you can still take significant steps to make your documents visually appealing to the reader. Use lots of informative headings.
Headings attract your readers’ attention to important information. They help readers find their way through a document and locate important points. Pack each heading with lots of information. How often have you seen several different sections entitled “applications” or “appeals” in one set of documents? Applications for what? Appeals of what? If you say “Applications for underground mining permits on public land” the reader knows exactly what you’re talking about, and knows the difference between that section and another section entitled “Applications for a temporary use permit to transport cattle across public land.
”On the other hand, headings should not be so long that they overwhelm the material in the section itself. Write short sections Short sections break up the material into easily understood segments and allow you to introduce a little white space. Short sections look easier to read and understand. Long sections can appear difficult and forbidding, even before someone tries to read them. Include only one issue in each paragraph Limiting each paragraph to one issue gives the document a clean appearance and contributes to the impression that it is easy to read and understand.
By presenting only one issue in each paragraph, you can use informative headings that reflect the entire issue covered by the paragraph. Use vertical lists Vertical lists highlight a series of requirements or other information in a visually clear way. Use vertical lists to help your reader focus on important material. Vertical lists– • Highlight levels of importance • Help the reader understand the order in which things happen • Make it easy for the reader to identify all necessary steps in a process • Add blank space for easy reading Use tested emphasis techniques to highlight important points.
Emphasis techniques are useful to draw the reader’s attention to a line or two. You should use techniques like bold and italics that have been tested on readers; they draw the reader’s attention to the area and are easy to read. You shouldn’t use ALL CAPS; they’re much harder to read. 2. Techniques for Better Writing This section provides examples of how to use the techniques listed in the overview. The examples are drawn from different agencies across the Federal government. Because we originally wrote this guidance for regulations writers, most of the examples are from regulations.
You won’t find any of these exact examples in the Code of Federal Regulations. We’ve altered them to provide what we think are better examples of the techniques we recommend. Identify and write for your audience Identify who is affected by a document and write to get their attention and answer their questions. You have to grab your readers’ attention if you want to get your ideas across. Let’s face it, readers just want to know what applies to them. The best way to grab and hold their attention is to figure out who they are and what they want to know. Put yourself in their shoes. It will give you a new perspective.
Tell your readers why the material is important to them. Say, “If you want a research grant, here’s what you have to do. ” Or, “If you want to mine federal coal, here’s what you should know. ” Or, “If you are planning a trip to Rwanda, read this first. ” Identifying your audience should do more than just cause you to make sure the terms you use are clear. It should help you focus on the reader’s needs. You should do this by thinking about what your reader knows about the situation now. Then think about how to guide them from their current knowledge to what you need them to know. To help you do this, try answering the following questions–
• Who is the reader? • Is there a secondary reader we need to give information? • What does the reader(s) already know about the subject? • What questions will the reader(s) have? • What’s the best outcome for my agency? What do I need to say to get this outcome? • What’s the best outcome for the reader? What do I need to say to get this outcome? Guide your readers from Point A to Point B in as straight a line as possible. Anticipate the questions readers have about what to read next. Many times a document has more than one audience. You may be talking to exporters and importers, or coal miners and surface owners, or airlines and passengers.
NEPA documents typically speak to both stakeholders and agency decision makers. Break your documents down into essential elements and determine which elements apply to each part of your audience. Then group the elements according to who is affected. If you are writing about research grants, first tell the professor what he or she must do; then tell the university accounting department what it must do. Identify clearly whom you are speaking to in each section. Don’t make a reader go through material only to find out at the end that the section doesn’t apply.
|Grant applications must provide the following information: |(a) When you apply for a grant, you must send us: | | | | |(a) Prior experience in the area covered by the grant; |(1) A description of your experience in the area covered by | |(b) Publications relevant to the area of the grant; |the grant; and | |(c) Other grants held at the time of application; | | |(d) Name and address of the chief financial officer; |(2) Copies of any material that you have published relevant | |(e) Nature of in-kind match being provided; |to the area of the grant. | |(f) Approved overhead rate; and | | |(g) Total proposed budget.
|(b) Your financial office must send us– | | | | | |(1) The name and address of the chief financial officer; | | | | | |(2) A description of the in-kind match you will provide; | | | | | |(3) Your approved overhead rate; and | | | | | |(4) A proposed budget. | Organize to meet your readers’ needs Well-organized, detailed tables of contents make it easy for the reader to identify all elements in a document. Part of serving your readers better is organizing your document so that they can understand how a program works and where to find instructions for each step they need to complete.
Your table of contents should be a reliable road map that readers can follow to get through a process painlessly. The table of contents below is organized in a logical sequence for a discretionary grant program. The organization follows the order in which events occur and in which the public might ask questions about the program. Part 791: Javits Gifted and Talented Students Subpart A: How the Grant Program Works Sec. 791. 1What is the Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program? 791. 2Am I eligible for a Javits Grant? 791. 3What activities are appropriate for Javits Grant funding? 791.
4What funding priorities may the Secretary establish? 791. 5What other regulations apply to the Javits Grant? 791. 6What definitions apply to the Javits Grant? Subpart B: How to Apply for an Award 791. 10Where do I write to obtain a Javits Grant application? 791. 11What materials do I need to submit to be considered for a Javits Grant? 791. 12Where do I send my application? 791. 13When is my application due? Subpart C: How the Secretary Makes an Award 791. 20How will the Secretary evaluate my application for a Javits Grant? 791. 21What selection criteria does the Secretary use to award Javits Grants?
791. 22Does the Secretary consider additional factors? Subpart D: Grantees’ Rights and Responsibilities 791. 30 Under what conditions may I use my Javits Grant award? 791. 31What are my responsibilities for serving students and teachers in private schools? The same organization works well for almost any type of regulation. Here’s an example of an administrative regulation– Part 725–CLAIMS FOR BENEFITS UNDER THE FEDERAL MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT General 725. 1What does this program cover? 725. 2What special terms do I need to know to understand this part? Who is Covered.
725. 201Who is entitled to benefits under this program? 725. 202How long can my benefits last? 725. 203Are my dependents entitled to benefits? 725. 204How long will their benefits last? 725. 205Am I still eligible if I am convicted of a felony? How to Apply for Benefits 725. 301How do I file a claim? 725. 302Can other people give evidence on my behalf? 725. 303Are there any time limits for filing my claim? 725. 304Can I modify or withdraw my claim? How to Appeal Agency Decisions 725. 401Can I appeal a decision if I don’t agree with it? 725. 402How do I file an appeal?
725. 403How long do I have to file an appeal? 725. 404What types of evidence must I submit? 725. 405What happens if I won’t get a medical examination? Use useful headings 3 There are three types of headings– |Question Heading |A heading in the form of a question |Why Do We Use Headings? | |Statement Heading |A heading that uses a noun and a verb |Headings Help Guide a Reader | |Topic Heading |A heading that is a word or short phrase |Helpful Headings | Question Headings are the most useful. They ask the questions that readers are asking and guide them to the answers.
Statement Headings are the next best choice because they are still very specific. Topic Headings are the most formal so many times management is more comfortable with them. But sometimes they’re so vague that they just aren’t that helpful. It’s best to stay with just one type of heading. The question-and-answer format is the most efficient way to communicate with your reader. The reader comes to your document with questions that he or she needs answered. It’s much more efficient to anticipate the reader’s questions and pose them as he or she would.
By doing this, you make it easier for the reader to find information. |§ 254. 11 Indian Rights. |§ 254. 11 How do the procedures in this part affect Indian rights? | |§ 254. 12 Applications. | | |§ 254. 13 Multi-tribal grants. |§ 254. 12 How do I apply for a grant under this part? | |§ 254. 14 Administrative requirements. | | |§ 254. 15 Appeals |§ 254. 13. When must I submit my application? | | | | | |§ 254. 14 Can a multi-tribal organization submit a single grant | | |request? | | | | | |§ 254. 15 What special information do I need for an application by a | | |multi-tribal organization? | | | | | |§ 254.
16 Must each tribe in a multi-tribal organization submit | | |certification forms and budgets? | | | | | |§ 254. 17 If I receive a grant under this part, what requirements must | | |I follow? | | | | | |§ 254. 18 What reports must I submit after receiving a grant? | | | | | |§ 254. 19 How can I appeal administrative actions under this part? | The original version had short headings that were not helpful to the reader. In the new version, we’ve identified with the reader and written additional questions that became separate sections. Use pronouns to represent the reader and to refer to your agency.
By using “you,” you address your reader personally and add immediacy to your document. When you address the reader as “you,” the reader feels that you are addressing him or her directly. 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 is more economical and has a greater impact on the reader. By using “you” to answer the reader’s questions, you clarify whom you are addressing. |Copies of tax returns must be provided. |You must provide copies of your tax returns.
| Writing for an individual reader forces you to analyze carefully what you want the reader to do. By writing to an individual, you will find it easier to– • Put information in a logical order • Answer questions and provide the information that your reader wants to know • Assign responsibilities and requirements clearly Be sure to define “you” clearly. |Facilities in regional and district offices are available to |If you are a member of the public, you can get copies of our | |the public during normal business hours for requesting … |records at any regional district office … |
Define “you” by any of the following methods– • State in the beginning of the document who the audience is–“This regulation tells you, a loan applicant, how to secure a loan. ” • Define “you” in the Definitions section–“You” means a loan applicant. • Where you address different readers in different parts of the document, define “you” in each context– “How do different types of borrowers apply for a loan? If you are a small business, you must submit . . . If you are an individual, you must submit . . . ” It’s especially important to define “you” where there are multiple audiences.
|Lessees and operators are responsible for restoring the site. |Lessees and operators are responsible for restoring the site. | |You must ensure that … |If you are the operator, you must conduct all operations in a| | |way … If you are the lessee, you must monitor the operator| | |to ensure that … | You may want to use “I” to refer to the reader. Since the question-and-answer format assumes that the reader is the one asking the questions, you should use “I” in questions to refer to the reader. Don’t use “I” in responses. In responses your agency (represented by “we”) addresses the reader.
By using “I” to ask questions in headings, you are anticipating questions the reader may have. |Submission of applications. |How do I apply for a loan? | By using “we” to respond to questions, you state clearly what your agency requires and what your agency’s responsibilities are. You also avoid the passive and use fewer words. Since you will never be asking the questions (only the reader does that), you should not use “we” in section headings. You can define “we” in the definitions sections of your document if that will help the reader.
|Loan applications will be reviewed to ensure that procedures |We review your loan application to ensure that you have | |have been followed. |followed our procedures. | |The Office of Consumer Affairs will process your application |We’ll process your application within 30 days of receiving it. | |within 30 days after receipt. | | Use active voice Active voice is the best way to identify who is responsible for what action. In an active sentence, the person or agency taking an action is the subject of the sentence. In a passive sentence, the person or item that is acted upon is the subject of the sentence.
Passive sentences often do not identify who is performing the action. |The lake was polluted by the company. |The company polluted the lake. | |New regulations were proposed. |We proposed new regulations. | |The following information must be included in the |You must include the following information in your | |application for it be considered complete. |complete application. | |Bonds will be withheld in cases of non-compliance with all|We will withhold your bond if you don’t comply with all | |permits and conditions. |permit terms and conditions. |
More than any other writing technique, using active voice and specifying who is taking an action will change the character of our writing. How do you identify passive sentences? Passive sentences have two basic features, although both do not appear in every passive sentence. • A past participle (generally with “ed” on the end); and • A form of the verb “to be. ” |Regulations have been proposed by the Department of |We have proposed regulations. | |Veterans Affairs. | | |The permit will be approved by the agency’s State office. |Our State office must approve your permit. | In a very few instances, passive voice may be appropriate.
For example, when one action follows another as a matter of law, and there is no actor (besides the law itself) for the second action, a passive sentence may be the best method of expression. |If you do not pay the royalty on your mineral production, you lease will be terminated [by the action of the law]. | Write Clearly Break your material into short sentences The best way to tell your reader what you want is a short, straightforward sentence. Complex sentences loaded with dependent clauses and exceptions confuse the reader by losing the main point in a forest of words.
Resist the temptation to put everything in one sentence; break up your idea into its various parts and make each one the subject of its own sentence. |For good reasons, the Secretary may grant extensions of |We may extend the time you have to file the lease and | |time in 30-day increments for filing of the lease and all |required bonds. Each extension will be for a 30-day | |required bonds, provided that additional extension |period. To get an extension, you must write to us giving | |requests are submitted and approved before the expiration |the reasons that you need more time.
We must receive your | |of the original 30 days or the previously granted |extension request in time to approve it before your | |extension. |current deadline or extension expires. | Complexity is the greatest enemy of clear communication. You may need to be especially inventive to translate complicated provisions into more manageable language. In the following example, we have made an “if” clause into a separate sentence. By beginning the first sentence with “suppose that” and the second sentence with “in this case,” we have preserved the relationship between the two.
|If you take less than your entitled share of production |Suppose that one month you pay royalties on your full | |for any month, but you pay royalties on the full volume of|share of production but take less than your entitled | |your entitled share in accordance with the provisions of |share. In this case, you may balance your account in one | |this section, you will owe no additional royalty for that |of the following ways without having to pay more royalty. | |lease for prior periods when you later take more than your|You may either: | |entitled share to balance your account.
This also applies | | |when the other participants pay you money to balance your |(a) Take more than your entitled share in the future; or | |account. | | | |(b) Accept money from other participants. | Address One Person, Not a Group Singular nouns and verbs prevent confusion about whether a requirement applies to individual readers or to groups. In the following example, the reader doesn’t know whether each applicant must file applications at several offices, or whether applicants who are members of a group must file individual requests.
|Individuals and organizations wishing to apply must file |You must apply at least 30 days before you need the | |applications with the appropriate offices in a timely |certification. | |manner. | | | |(a) If you are an individual, apply at the State office in| | |the State where you reside. | | | | | |(b) If you are an organization, apply at the State office | | |in the State where your headquarters is located. | In addressing a single person, you can avoid awkwardness by using “you” to address the reader directly, rather than using “his or her” or “he or she.
” |The applicant must provide his or her mailing address and |You must provide your mailing address and identification | |his or her identification number. |number. | Your reader probably will need only a single permit, application, or license. Thus, writing in the singular means that it will apply to the reader as written, eliminating the need to “translate. ” Use present tense whenever possible A document written in the present tense is more immediate and less complicated. Using the present tense makes your document more direct and forceful.
The more you use conditional or future tense, the harder your reader has to work to understand your meaning. Writing entirely in the present tense saves your reader work and helps you to make your point clearly. |These sections describe types of information that would |These sections tell you how to meet the requirements of | |satisfy the application requirements of Circular A-110 as |Circular A-110 for this grant program. | |it would apply to this grant program. | | Even if you are covering an event that occurred in the past, you can clarify the material for your reader by writing as much as possible in the present tense.
|Applicants who were Federal employees at the time that the|You may not be covered under this part if: | |injury was sustained should have filed a compensation | | |request at that time. Failure to do so could have an |(a) You were a Federal employee at the time of the injury;| |effect on the degree to which the applicant can be covered|and | |under this part. | | | |(b) You did not file a report with us at that time. | You help your reader understand and relate to your document if you eliminate the need for him or her to “translate” the text from the past or conditional tense into the present.
Remember, the less work your reader has to do to understand, the better he or she can follow your instructions. Occasionally, of course, you may need to use other tenses. For example, NEPA documents frequently refer to what may happen in the future if certain events occur. But use tenses other than the present only when necessary for accuracy. Use “must” to indicate requirements The word “must” is the clearest way to convey to your readers that they have to do something. “Shall” is one of those officious and obsolete words that
has encumbered legal style writing for many years. The message that “shall” sends to the reader is, “this is deadly material. ” “Shall” is also obsolete; when was the last time you heard it used in everyday speech? Besides being outdated, “shall” is imprecise. It can indicate either an obligation or a prediction. Dropping “shall” is a major step in making your document more reader friendly. Don’t be intimidated by the argument that using “must” will lead to a lawsuit. Many agencies already use the word “must” to convey obligations with no adverse legal effects.
You can avoid “shall” by substituting “must” to indicate an obligation or “will” to indicate that an action will occur in the future. Be careful to consider which meaning you intend to communicate to your readers. |Section 5511. 1 Free Use of Timber on Oil and Gas Leases |Section 5511. 1 Can I use the timber on my oil or gas | | |lease for fuel? | |(a) Any oil or gas lessee who wishes to use timber for | | |fuel in drilling operations shall file an application |You must file an application to use the timber on your oil| |therefor with the officer who issued the lease. |or gas lease for fuel.
File the application with our | | |office where you got your lease. | |(b) The applicant shall be notified by registered mail in | | |all cases where the permit applied for is not granted, and|Section 5511. 12 Will you notify me if you reject my | |shall be given 30 days within which to appeal such |application? | |decision. | | | |Our agency will notify you by registered mail if we reject| |(c) Where the land is occupied by a settler, the |your application. You must file an appeal of that | |applicant shall serve notice on the settler by registered |decision within 30 days.
| |mail showing the amount and kind of timber he has applied | | |for. |Section 5511. 13 Must I notify anyone that I have applied | | |for use of the timber? | | | | | |You must notify any settler, by registered mail, that you | | |have applied to use timber from your lease. Include in | | |your notice: | | | | | |(a) The amount of timber you applied for; and | | | | | |(b) The kind of timber you applied for. | Place words carefully Avoid ambiguous phrasing that can mislead your reader. How you place words in relation to each other can greatly affect your document.
Using short sentences will often make this problem disappear. In the example below, it’s difficult for the reader of the provision on the left to figure out which words relate to the forest products, which relate to the tribe, and which relate to the payments. |Upon the request of an Indian tribe, the Secretary may |If you ask us, we will require purchasers of your forest | |provide that the purchaser of the forest products of such|products to deposit their payment into an account that you| |tribe, which are harvested under a timber sale contract, |designate. | |permit, o.