How to Tell Your Agency’s Story—Plainly

Apr 16, 2014
Dictionary definition of the word language, highlighted in pink

chris2766, iStock, Thinkstock

You’ve got the right words, the active verbs, the carefully chosen adjectives and adverbs. You’ve got the facts. You’ve got the talking points. All you have to do is put it together, right?

Wait. What you want to tell people is not necessarily what they need to know.

I know it’s hard to organize material for your reader, but it’s the key to writing in plain language. Besides being the law, it’s also a best practice and the best way for getting people to read your content.

Because no one comes to government websites just to read every page, right? Our audience is busy people who want to get an answer to their question right now.

Here are the top 8 ways to write to get read:

  • 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

Katherine Spivey, Plain Language Launcher and Web Content and Social Media Manager at the General Services Administration (GSA), recently did two webinars for DigitalGov University. In them, she noted that if you write for a government website, you’ll need the top web writing skills from the plain language set — and those who write for an agency’s blog, Facebook, or Twitter account, need to do social media and plain language at the same time.

Katherine Spivey is the General Services Administration’s Plain Language Launcher and co-chair of the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN).