By guest blogger, Dr. Annetta L. Cheek, Board Chair for the Center for Plain Language.
October 13 was International Plain Language Day, the anniversary of the President’s signing the Plain Writing Act in 2010. So now is a good time to start writing in a plainer, more direct style.
Think about your readers—what do they really need to know, and how can you best write that for them.
If you’re like I was in the mid-1990s, just starting to try to change the way I wrote, you’ve spent a long time writing the way one “normally” writes in the government—lots of long sentences, passive verbs, collective nouns. You can’t change all that overnight. So where do you start?
I started by trying to get my sentences under control. I used to be proud of how much I could pack into one sentence—phases and clauses all connected logically (I hoped), with maybe an exception or two thrown in for good measure.
Remember those sentences you were taught to write in grade school—subject, verb, object? That’s still the best model to use. It’s the way our minds work, and it’s easiest for the reader to understand.
Consider this sentence from a federal agency:
The Multifamily Housing Complaint Line is a service provided by HUD’s Multifamily Housing Clearinghouse (MFHC) that enables residents of HUD-insured and -assisted properties and other community members to report complaints with a property’s management concerning matters such as poor maintenance, dangers to health and safety, mismanagement, and fraud.
The sentence contains 48 words – far more than is easy for the average reader to track. And it’s so easy to fix. Did you know that the number of periods in the universe is infinite? No matter how many you use, you still have plenty left. So don’t feel you have to save them for another day, just go ahead and use as many as you want.
It would have been easy to write the above sentence this way:
The Multifamily Housing Complaint Line is a service provided by HUD’s Multifamily Housing Clearinghouse (MFHC). The line enables residents of HUD-insured and -assisted properties and other community members to report complaints with a property’s management concerning matters. Residents might complain about poor maintenance, dangers to health and safety, mismanagement, and fraud.
We’ll see more of this sentence in future blogs, when we tackle other plain language problems it contains. In the meantime, take a good look at your sentences. Strive for an average length of not more than 20 words – preferably a couple less. But include a range of sentence lengths centered around that average. Too many sentences all the same length make your writing choppy.
Want to learn more?
- See the Federal Plain Language Guideline about sentence length, and
- Howto.gov for information on how to use plain language in writing for the web.
As we celebrate Plain Language Day, tell us about the progress your organization is making to write more plainly.