The government’s nimble digital services start-up, 18F, believes that federal bureaucrats can ditch bureaucratese in favor of “plain writing” that the average person can understand.
“Government websites often talk at readers rather than to them: As with other facets of its online presence, .gov writing tends to describe the government’s concerns in “governmentese,” leaving users frustrated by information that is neither actionable nor understandable.”
That’s how the 18F Content Guide released this week starts out, with an acknowledgment that much government writing, whether on paper or on the Web, is hardly an exemplar of clear communication with the public.
The guide is promising. It’s “here when you’re wondering whether to capitalize the word federal, for instance, or when you’re wondering how to create a friendly, informational tone,” says the introduction, written in a clear, conversational style.
The plain writing campaign is the newest effort from 18F, a team of software developers that launched last year at the General Services Administration, an effort to speed innovation and create digital services to help federal agencies and citizens better navigate the government.
18F is taking a five-year-old campaign to improve agencies’ written communications to the digital world. Congress passed the Plain Writing Act in 2010 to improve the way bureaucracies talk to taxpayers. Agencies are supposed to train the many employees who write in their jobs to use the active voice, prune overly long sentences and cut out jargon and legalese. They’ve had mixed success.
The law requires federal officials to translate their forms, letters, directives and other documents into “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” The GSA team can’t force anyone to approach writing for the web differently, but hopes to set an example for digital teams across government.
The guide offers sections on using the active voice; using acronyms; addressing the user; avoiding duplication; being concise; capitalization and making legal and technical content readable.
There’s also a nod to political correctness in a section on how to employ a “conscious style.” To wit: Ensure words are gender neutral, and avoid words and phrases that indicate gender bias — for example, lengthy and irrelevant descriptions of appearance, the guide says. And elderly is a non-no: “We prefer older person or senior.”
Here are some worthy ruts the 18F team suggests that federal employees get themselves out of, fast:
Example old: When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, that rut or hole must be filled.
Example new: If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before driving away.
Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use buy instead of purchase, help instead of assist, about instead of approximately, and so on.
We lose our users’ trust if we write using government buzzwords and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. We can do without these words:
- Agenda (unless you’re talking about a meeting)
- Collaborate (use working with)
- Combating (use working against or fighting)
- Commit/pledge (we need to be more specific — we’re either doing something or we’re not)
- Deploy (unless you’re talking about the military or software)
- Dialogue (we speak to people)
- Disincentivize (and incentivize)
- Facilitate (instead, say something specific about how you are helping)
- Foster (unless it’s children)
- Illegals/illegal aliens (use undocumented immigrants)
- Impact (as a verb)
- Innovative (use words that describe the positive outcome of the innovation)
- Key (unless it unlocks something. A subject/thing isn’t “key” — it’s probably important)
- Land (as a verb. Only use if you’re talking about aircraft)
- Leverage (unless you use it in the financial sense)
- Progress (what are you actually doing?)
- Promote (unless you are talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)
- Simple/simply (use straightforward, uncomplicated, or clear, or leave the descriptor out altogether)
- Strengthening (unless you’re referring to bridges or other structures)
- Tackling (unless you’re referring to football or another contact sport)
- Thought leader (refer to a person’s accomplishments)
- Touchpoint (mention specific system components)
- Transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)
- User testing (unless you’re actually testing the users — otherwise, use usability testing)
Avoid using figurative language — it often doesn’t say what you actually mean and can make your content more difficult to understand. For example:
- Drive (you can only drive vehicles, not schemes or people)
Drive out (unless it’s cattle)
- Going forward (unless you’re giving directions)
- In order to (this is superfluous — don’t use it)
- One-stop shop (we’re the government, not a big box store). In most cases, you can avoid these figures of speech by describing what you’re actually doing. Be open and specific.
Write conversationally. Picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-on-one and with the authority of someone who can actively help.
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