OPM Tells Federal Employees to Use 'Plain Language'

By on July 9, 2011 in Current Events, Leadership with 14 Comments

When writing documents at work, do you use “plain language” to ensure they are comprehensible? The Office of Personnel Management wants to make certain that you do and has some tips for prospective writers in federal agencies.

President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law on October 13, 2010. It is designed to “improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”

So what exactly does that mean?

According to OPM, “Plain language is grammatically correct and universally understood language that includes complete sentence structure and accurate word usage. Plain language is not unprofessional writing or a method of ‘dumbing down’ or ‘talking down’ to the reader.”

How best to do this? OPM has prepared a few tips to help guide your writing:

Engage your readers

  • First, consider who your readers are.
  • Consider what your readers need to know and want to know. Organize content to answer their questions.
  • Write at a reading level that is appropriate to your intended audience.

Write clearly
Use common, everyday words whenever possible.

Word Choices:

  • Use common, everyday words but avoid slang.
  • Use personal pronouns such as “you.”
  • Use “must” instead of “shall.”
  • Avoid using undefined technical terms.
  • Use positive rather than negative words.
  • Avoid using gender-specific terminology.
  • Avoid long strings of nouns.

Verb Forms:

  • Use active voice.
  • Use action verbs.
  • Use the present tense whenever you can.

Structure:

  • Use parallel construction.
  • Be direct.
  • Avoid unnecessary exceptions.

Display Material Correctly

Appearance is an important aspect of clear communication. If a document is pleasing to the eye, it will be more likely to attract your readers’ attention. Appearance can also be an aid to readers, improving comprehension and retention.

  • Organization. Strong, logical organization includes an introduction followed by short sentences and paragraphs. Organize messages to respond to your readers’ interests and concerns.
  • Introduction. In lengthier documents, use an introduction and a table of contents to help readers understand how a document is organized.
  • Short Sentences and Paragraphs. Sentence length should average 15-20 words. Sentences that are simple, active, affirmative, and declarative hold readers’ interest. Generally, each paragraph should contain only one topic. You may wish to use a series of paragraphs if you need to express complex or highly technical information. The more writing deviates from a clear and to-the-point structure, the harder it will be for readers to understand what you are trying to convey.
  • Layout. Layout includes margins, headings, and white space. Provide white space between sections to break up text and to make it easier for readers to understand. Use headings to guide readers; the question-and-answer format is especially helpful. Try to anticipate your readers’ questions and pose them as a reader would. Use adequate margins.
  • Tables. Tables make complex information readily understandable. They can help readers see relationships more easily, and they may require fewer words than straight text.
  • Typography. Typography relates to fonts and typographical elements used for emphasis, such as bullets or italics. Limit the number of fonts you use. It is usually best to stick to one font for headings and another for text. Use typographical elements consistently throughout your document – and avoid overusing any one element.

Proofread your document

The tips provided here suggest to look for:

  • Word choice, verb forms, and structure;
  • Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation;
  • Inclusion of appropriate devices, such as dating, page numbering, and consistency;
  • Visual appeal;
  • Consistency and effectiveness of layout and typographical devices; and
  • Line breaks that inadvertently separate part of a name or date in a way that reduces clarity.

Even better, you should consider having somebody else proof the document as well.

As to why you should do this, OPM says that prospective and current employees of the government “deserve to receive clear and consistent information from us. Further, the American people deserve a better window into what their government does.” OPM says that it fully supports the Plain Language initiative to that end.

© 2016 Ian Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ian Smith.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce. Ian also has a background in web development and does the technical work for the FedSmith.com web site and its sibling sites.

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