Open Government at the National Archives

2018 Plain Writing Report

(This report was submitted April 2019)

Our Commitment 

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is committed to improving our service to the public by using plain language in all our communications. We use plain language in all new or revised communications about:

  • any of our services and benefits
  • obtaining any of our benefits or services
  • complying with a NARA requirement

Our commitment to the goals of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 is part of our target mission of providing public access to Federal Government records in our custody.  These records are the bedrock of our democracy. They document our rights and entitlements as citizens. They allow us to hold our government officials accountable for their actions. And they serve as first-hand witnesses to the important events of our national experience. 

We actively promote access to these records through a wide range of activities. By inviting the public to transcribe handwritten documents through crowdsourcing, we open up those documents to millions more, now and in the future. Through online and on-site workshops, tutorials, and lectures, we provide context to the records that will allow researchers to make further discoveries. And by promoting better records management in agencies, before the records even get to the National Archives, we ensure the documentation of our Government’s work will endure for generations to come.

As the Plain Writing Act promotes “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use,” NARA wants to ensure that the public can understand and use its own Federal records.  Learn more about our Plain Writing activities.

Our Senior Official for Plain Writing

The NARA Senior Official for plain writing is Maria Carosa Stanwich, Chief of Staff.

Long-Term Ongoing Plain Writing Actions in 2018

In 2018, plain writing at the National Archives continued to receive greater and heightened attention by management and staff as more communication—for both internal and external audiences—undergoes plain writing reviews at multiple levels by editors and writers with the necessary background and experience. In some cases, a particular communication might get more than one round of reviews. As a result, plain writing has become more a part of the communications process at NARA than it has been before.

Plain Language Tips for Staff

We promote plain writing through Plain Language Tips posted on our internal website, NARA@work.  We’ve also posted a sample of these tips on our Plain Writing page. Subjects include:

Actions by NARA Units to Improve Writing

Program areas within NARA take separate approaches to complying with the plain writing directive, depending on their role at the agency.  For our museum areas, which host more than 1 million visitors annually, we write and edit exhibit text to be brief and engaging. Item labels promote clarity, brevity, and simplified language.

Declarations, our in-house online newsletter, is written in plain language and frequently carries articles about the use of plain language. Articles that appear in Declarations undergo a multilayered editorial review for accuracy, clarity, readability, brevity, and completeness before they are published for the staff.

Plain Language Training Classes

NARA’s online training tools, Learning Management System and SkillSoft, offer several plain language classes.

Plain Language Represented in Staff Performance Plans

Communication is one of the core competencies for all supervisors at NARA. Effective use of plain language is central to achieving that competency, and we continue to develop criteria to determine how well supervisors communicate with their staff.

Supervisors may include a plain language requirement in performance plans. This may include taking a course or workshop in plain writing. Our Editorial Services staff—experienced editors and writers—stands ready to assist any staff member who wants expert help in improving his or her writing skills.

Our Employee Communications and Editorial Services Staff

Our Employee Communications and Editorial Services staff performs multiple and extensive plain writing reviews of NARA Notices, press releases, management communications, and other text submitted to the staff for review. These reviews include copy editing, substantive editing, and, when necessary, reorganization of the material for better readability and understanding.

Plain writing is only one step in the communications process, and often how a message is displayed is as important as the language used. Our designers add dimension to our editorial services’ products by bringing their talents in layout and design to specific projects when asked. 

NARA Style Guide

The NARA Style Guideis an important tool for NARA writers to produce writing that conveys clear thought. It establishes agency standards of punctuation, word usage, and grammar that answer writers’ most common questions and aims to promote clear and effective writing throughout the agency.  Editorial staff members worrk to make the guide easier to use, offering more real-world examples and updating technology-related terms.

Our Web Services

Our Web and Social Media Branch follows the 18F methodologies and U.S. Web Design Standards and offers the following support and services to NARA staff to ensure excellent usability and compliance with the Plain Writing Act and related guidance:

  • User Experience Research — Surveys, user interviews, metrics analysis, customer journey mapping, user personas (View real-time Metrics)
  • Design and Development — Redesigns (including content audits and content strategy), migration to the Drupal content management system, and other improvements that organize content based on top tasks
  • Prototyping and User Testing — Testing concepts, designs, and prototypes with users to meet their needs
  • Training — Writing for the web, and more

See our Examples page to see how we're implementing plain language.

Tools for Accessing Our Records

We encourage our audiences to become active partners in making historical documents available today and for the future.

Training the Trainers

No trainers were trained this year.

Teaching Civics

Our public programs put government records in historical and current context.  Dozens of free programs are presented each month in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives in Washington, DC as well as our nationwide facilities.   We also sponsor special programs on using government records in genealogical research.