Open Government at the National Archives

2019 Plain Writing Report

(This report was submitted April 2020)

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 communicationss—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 2019, plain writing at the National Archives continued to receive greater and heightened attention by management and staff.  More communication—for both internal and external audiences—now undergoes plain writing reviews at multiple levels by editors and writers with the necessary background and experience. In many 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:

  • Veterans Day—Getting it Right  - The day the nation honors its veterans is this coming Tuesday, November 11. As an Army veteran myself, I've often wondered if I’m spelling and punctuating the name of the day correctly when I write about it.
  • Wake Up Your Sentences - The use of “There is. . .” and “There was. . .” only means something exists. No action is involved. In most cases, you can eliminate it and shorten the sentence:
  • Plain Language: Can We Talk?A new year brings new resolutions to do better. I’m going to try to follow the advice I received through the Federal plain language group (PLAIN): write in a conversational tone.​
  • Plain Language: Staying on Topic - One of the challenges in writing is staying on topic, or not straying from the main thesis of whatever you’re writing about. The result of losing your way: You don’t make your main points effectively.
  • Plain Language: Make a List, Then Check It Twice - Lists help us get information across to readers in a clear way that is easy for them to understand. Lists also are good tools to use to meet “plain writing” goals, especially in communicating information about multifaceted subjects.​
  • Plain Language: Do Your Readers Need a Decoder Ring? - Several staffers commented that we should promote the use of “real words” instead of codes when we communicate with each other. Office codes are useful for databases, charts, and other business practices where space is constrained, but we don’t have to use them when we talk to each other.  
  • Plain Language: A Few Words from the Federal Register  - The Federal Register’s web page provides ways to say things in fewer words. Many are legal terms that staff encounter while preparing the daily Federal Register. We found some that are widely used throughout the Archives and thought we’d share them with you.​ 

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:

  • Agency Services 
    Agency Services provides services and resources for other government agencies, such as records management and records storage. The National Declassification Center’s web page was updated for ease of reference; obsolete information was removed, and the page was redesigned to highlight the most recent updates. In an assessment of Freedom of Information Act searches, technological, FOIA, and records management issues were discussed in plain, easy-to-understand language.
  • Center for Legislative Archives 
    The Center, which preserves the records of Congress, provides a direct answer to an original question and then explains how it found the answer and through what resources. With this method, the Center teaches people how to answer similar questions and provides a point of entry for legislative research. The Special Collections of the Center’s website didn’t describe the collections in a way that made it clear what records were available and in what format. NARA developed a work plan to clarify language on each page and convert unnecessary PDFs to HTML pages to enhance accessibility. This work will be done in 2020.
  • Communications and Marketing Division
    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.
  • National Archives Museum
    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.
  • The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum both proofreads and fact-checks museum texts before putting them in public displays. The library also created an information page for all new researchers in the form of an easy-to-read table.  Reviews of texts pay particular attention to unnecessary words.
  • The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum provides a review of texts by a committee representing the library staff and the foundation; texts are reviewed regularly for accuracy and brevity. The supervisory archivist proofreads substantive changes to finding aids, and multiple people proofread exhibit scripts.
  • The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum edits communications during quarterly and biweekly staff meetings before they are released to a wider audience. Mentors now review work by writers and editors on a one-on-one basis. Two people instead of one now proofread communications.

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. 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. 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.  It is being updated in 2020 to make it easier to use, offering more real-world examples and updating technology-related terms.

Our Web Services

Our Office of Innovation Web Team continues to follow the 18F methodologies and U.S. Web Design Standards.  NARA website redesigns and improvements must comply with the NARA Website Requirements Checklist that includes Plain Language compliance. The Usability Team 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 Archives.gov 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.  These two areas on Archives.gov were substantially updated in 2019: 

  • Electoral College:
    • The Web Team worked with the Office of the Federal Register to redesign the Electoral College website in advance of the 2020 Presidential election.  
    • The new design includes a new, more direct address (www.archives.gov/electoral-college) to make accessing the site faster and easier. 
    • Obsolete and redundant content is gone, and all information from each past election is now grouped by the election instead of scattered across multiple pages and directories. 
    • The rewritten content and structure follow the principles of plain language and utilize coding features to apply consistency.
       
  • Military Service Records
    • Finished a complete redesign and layout of the page using feedback, competitive analysis, google analytics data, and heatmaps of usage to identify most popular elements. 
    • Rewrote text (in both main areas and accordions) to be more clear, and broke text blocks up with bullets and shorter paragraphs. 
    • Improved links to more clearly point to additional information so they were not redundant. 
    • Added visual graphic of the form to be filled out. 
    • Set expectations by clarifying that users need to submit a signature page (labeled directly in the call-to-action buttons).
    • Removed redundant language and buttons.

Tools for Accessing Our Records

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

  • The new portal for Special Access and FOIA provides straightforward instructions on how to request records under FOIA, such as 9/11 FAA records and digitized FBI files and simplifies navigation to thousands of records. We developed two new finding aids using tables, bulleted lists, and helpful headings to help customers use the portal.
  • NARA staff collaborated on a portal page to highlight NARA’s records and other content relating to the centennial of America’s entry into World War I. This topic-oriented, user-focused portal follows the plain writing web standards, including writing for the audience, logically organizing the information, adding useful headings, highlighting important concepts, and presenting visuals. 
  • On the Military Records Status Request page, we added more clear navigation in the form of graphical buttons and formatted text with bullets and spacing for easier skimming. 
  • In the EEO section of Archives,gov, we condensed navigation so every page would have the same options (they used to vary widely). 
  • We condensed the Social Media Policies to one policy for clarity instead of listing separate policies for every social media platform.
  • For the Reasonable Accommodations Policy, we moved from PDF format to HTML and updated the page using plain language.

Plain Language and Web Writing Training

NARA offered two sections of the class Writing for the Web: Using Plain Language and the NARA Style Guide. 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 web content. The one-hour class was offered to 13 attendees in December 2019, both remotely and in person at College Park, MD.  The slides, recording, and handout are available on the agency’s intranet and also shared via the ICN, NARA’s interactive communication tool.

 

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