Open Government at the National Archives

2020 Plain Writing Report

(This report was submitted April 2021)

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—internal as well as external. We use plain language in all new or revised communications about:

  • any of our services and benefits,
  • obtaining any of our benefits or services, or
  • 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.

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

Senior Official for Plain Writing

NARA's Senior Official for Plain Writing is Maria Carosa Stanwich, Chief of Staff.

Long-Term Ongoing Plain Writing Actions 

In 2020, plain writing at the National Archives became even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the agency, along with the rest of the federal government, closed its doors and instituted full telework. In such uncertain times, clear communication was essential. The number of messages from management to staff and from the agency to the public increased greatly, and our readers needed to fully understand these messages and take the appropriate action.

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

The Employee Communications and Editorial Services staff edits communications destined for both internal and external audiences. A plain writing review is built into the publication process for all official internal communications.  The team also reviews all agency-wide notices and email communications for plain language and adherence to the NARA Style Guide.

  • Internal communications cover all official announcements to all staff and include email announcements and information, official NARA Notices (193 in FY 2020), articles and features for Declarations (our online internal news outlet), slide presentations for All Hands meetings, and training materials for all staff. All stories for Declarations and other internal communications are reviewed by multiple writer-editors before publication.
  • External communications include press releases, news articles, educational materials, blog posts, exhibit scripts, annual reports, and information on the agency’s website. These products come from units across the agency and also receive multiple reviews prior to publication.

Plain writing is only one step in the communications process, and often how a message is displayed is as important as the language used. Designers add dimension to 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.  In 2020, we updated and reissued the NARA Style Guide, which covers writing in plain language as well as matters of style, grammar, and usage.

Examples of Select NARA Units’ Efforts to Improve Writing

Program areas within NARA take separate approaches to complying with the plain writing directive, depending on their role at the agency. Here are a few examples:

  • The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum established a standard practice of proofreading and editing for newsletters and press releases by both an archivist and the webmaster before they are sent to stakeholders and posted on the Library’s website. In addition, the Twitter team established a practice of review and one-on-one mentoring for staff members who produce social media content.  These have had a positive impact on both the writing and the content of the resources.
  • The George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum adjusted radio advertisements to use clearer language and less repetition.  The ads are consistently presented with the website address always at the end of the ad.
  • The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum redesigned the Reagan Library website - this involved starting from scratch, writing language at the 8th grade level for the general public, using shorter sentences, reserving industry specific language only for research and archival audiences, and user testing among multiple audiences to confirm ease of use.

Our Web Services

Our Web 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, user testing, A/B testing, metrics analysis, competitive analysis, customer journey mapping, user personas, and heatmap usage data. (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 and utilize best practices for information architecture based on top tasks.
  • Prototyping and User Testing — Testing concepts, designs, and prototypes with users to meet their needs in iterative fashion, tweaking web products as testing informs final designs and outcome.
  • Training — The Web Branch offered What is User Experience (UX)? to teach how user experience (UX) research and methodologies can help ensure that our websites, services, and processes are both useful and easy to use from the audience's perspective.  These classes were attended remotely in April (39 attendees) and July (32 attendees) 2020.  The Web Branch also offered How to Update Web Content using Drupal to 39 users in 2020. 

Plain Language Training Classes

NARA’s online training tools, Learning Management System and SkillSoft, offer several plain language classes.  Staff also attend external classes such as the Plain Language Basics: Online Workshop” offered by the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN).

Plain Language and Writing Training

NARA offered two Using Plain Language and the NARA Style Guide classes in 2020. The 1-hour class was attended by 43 remote attendees (in March and June 2020). The class taught how to use plain language in agency communications to comply with the Plain Writing Act of 2010 and how to use NARA’s Style Guide when writing and editing content. The class was presented by Miriam Vincent, Office of the Federal Register and Executive Committee for the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) and recorded. The slides, recording, and handout are available on the intranet and also shared via the ICN, NARA’s interactive communication tool.

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