You worked hard getting your content online. How do you make sure your readers can find, understand and use it? Apply plain language. Clear and direct writing makes your content accessible (it's also the law!). Plain language also helps people with different cognitive abilities. Or speakers of a non-English language. Or those who rely on audio to listen to text.
You might also be writing for the public. Or a group of experts. Either way, your audience's reading level is likely lower than you think.
- CivicActions employees
- Public servants
- Government communications teams
- Anyone designing content for the public
A quick guide to plain language Anchor link
- Jargon and government legalese. If you have to use an acronym, spell it out first.
- Filler words. For example, use the word 'analyze' not 'conduct an analysis'.
- Repetitive words
- Irony or idioms
- Intro text. For example, "Welcome to our department homepage."
- Using active voice throughout your site
- Writing one idea per sentence
- Using the simpler synonym. For example, 'use' not 'utilize'.
- Keeping the reading level between 6th and 8th grade reading level. Remember to remove proper nouns and titles.
Write for your audience Anchor link
Before writing, ask yourself: What are your reader's needs? What do they need to know or do after reading your content?
People visit your website to do something: answer a question or complete a specific task. Ask yourself: what are the top questions my target reader wants to know? How can I answer it quickly?
Choose words your reader uses Anchor link
Imagine you're talking to your reader over the phone. What words would you use to answer questions directly?
You can also use different keyword research tools. Try Google's Keyword Research Planner or Moz Analytics. They can help you brainstorm user-friendly words and phrases related to your topic.
Structure your content with clear headers. Present headers in a logical order. This will help a user scan the content easily to figure out what it's about. Make it specific to the topic or sub-topic. The clearest headers tell you something useful.
Use bulleted lists to make content easy to scan. Remember: website users don't read, they scan. They often leave web pages within 10 to 20 seconds.
Test your content with a readability tool Anchor link
Always run your content through a readability tool. You can use Hemingway App, Readable.io, or turn on Flesch-Kincaid if editing in Microsoft Word. Try to get the reading grade level lower than 8th grade. Before using the tool, remember to remove:
- proper nouns
- any domain-specific language you have to use. For example, a medical term you might need to include in your content.
Listen to your text in Reader Mode Anchor link
There are many tools to help with the readability of your site. Some of them offer a text to speach functionality that makes it easy for people to listen to what you have written. In our testing, Microsoft's Immersive Reader is one of the best.
Simply hearing how text read out loud can help authors better understand where improvements can be made.
Do more "just enough" user testing with your audience Anchor link
See "just enough" article.
Automated readability tools won't catch everything. You'll need to test your content with humans too. You can test:
- Menu labels and micro-content. Keep your user goals in mind.
- Language. Ask your users to read your content out loud. What words do they stumble over? How do they rate the clarity of the language (on a scale from 1 to 5)?
- Understanding. Ask your users to paraphrase what they read. What did they summarize correctly? What did they miss? What did they get wrong?
Get trained in plain language Anchor link
The Center for Plain Language offers training for federal employees. You can take:
Helpful plain language resources Anchor link