Plain Language PAGE 3

WRITING USER-FRIENDLY DOCUMENTS


How can you engage your readers?

You engage readers by speaking to them directly and clearly and by organizing your message in a structure that reflects their interests. Here are some key ways--


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. (For more about identifying your audience, see "Identify Your Audience," page 7.)


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. (For more information about organizing, see "Organize Your Documents Carefully," page 8.)


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. (For more about this format, see "Use a Question-and-Answer Format," page 9.)


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. (For more about using "you," see "Use 'You' to Speak to the Reader," page 10.) Using "we" to refer to your agency economizes words and makes your document more accessible to the reader. (For more about using the pronouns "I" and "we," see "Use Pronouns to Represent the Reader and to Refer to Your Agency," page 11.)


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." (For more about active voice, see "Use Active Voice," page 12.)


Use the appropriate tone

In regulations, tone is not really an issue. But the tone of a letter 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 them to put down the letter rather than attempting to read it at all. The tone of your letter will be determined by who your reader is and what his or her circumstances are.

For more information about how to determine the appropriate tone and how to create it, see--

letter button"Tone in Your Letters"

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