Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Plain Language: All in the .Gov Family

by Katherine Spivey, Management & Program Analyst and Plain Language Launcher, GSA

A few months ago, my dad was researching on some .gov sites to find out if my great-aunt was eligible for surviving spousal support. He’s a smart guy, persistent, used to the web, happy with his iPad, a former fed.

He couldn’t find it. He tried everything he knew how to do: used the navigation, searched the web site, and searched Google. However, he ended up having to call on the phone and make an appointment some weeks later to go to Richmond, some hours away.

That’s a fail. He should have been able to:
  • find what he needed,
  • understand it when he found it, and
  • use it to help my great-aunt get the money she’s entitled to.
Now, to be fair, he said the government worker he met with was fantastic, explained everything clearly, and got him the right forms, etc.

But it shouldn’t have taken that extra step. He should have been able to do it all on the website.

And that is why I’m training federal workers in plain language.

Well, that’s the short answer. But it’s for the numbers of people like my dad, trying to solve a problem on a government website. Reading government websites should be easy.

Do you write for the web? Here are my top 8 plain language tips:
  • organize for your reader
  • use design features such as headers, tables, and bullets
  • write short sentences and paragraphs
  • use “you,” “we,” and other pronouns
  • write in active voice, not passive
  • emphasize verbs, not nouns
  • use consistent terms, not jargon or acronyms
  • choose common, everyday words
And for how they all fit together—and which plain language techniques really help you write for the web--and help you help your reader, listen to me explain how to write plain language on the web: my February 26, 2014, course on Plain Language: Writing for the Web is on digitalgov.gov:

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