Open Government at the National Archives

2023 Plain Writing Report

(This report was submitted April 2024 [posted on 4-30-24])

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 dovetails with our 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 firsthand 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 Monica M. Woods, Chief of Staff.

Long-Term Ongoing Plain Writing Actions 

In 2023, NARA remained committed to using plain writing in its communications with the public, its staff, and other government agencies. The editorial staff in the Office of the Chief of Staff encourages offices to send their material for review before publication, and an increasing number take advantage of these services. As needed, we revise the NARA Writing Style Guide in response to the needs of NARA writers, and in early 2023 we issued an update. In 2024 we will continue to spread awareness of editorial services and plain writing resources throughout the agency.

Plain Language Reviews for Training Units

NARA’s editorial staff review training modules for plain language and adherence to the NARA Writing Style Guide. This training is mandatory for all NARA staff annually.

Our Communications and Marketing Division/Editorial Staff

The Communications and Marketing Division 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 editorial services team also reviews news articles, flagship social media posts, press releases, exhibit scripts, web pages, and other communications to the public. In calendar year 2023, the editorial services team reviewed 574 documents from across the agency to ensure the use of plain language and adherence to the NARA Writing Style Guide

  • Internal communications cover all official announcements to all staff and include email announcements and information, official NARA Notices (151 in 2023), 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, social media posts, exhibit scripts, annual reports, users guides, genealogy presentations, and information on the agency’s website. These products come from units across the agency.

NARA Style Guide

The NARA Writing Style Guide is an important tool for NARA writers to produce writing that helps readers find what they need and use what they find. The guide covers writing in plain language as well as matters of style, grammar, and usage. As questions of style are debated and settled, the editorial staff updates the guide, and we made a small update in 2023.

Examples of Select NARA Units’ Efforts to Improve Writing

NARA comprises a large number of archives, records centers, and Presidential Libraries across the country. Within the locations, staff engage in a number of activities to further our mission of access: research assistance, records management, preservation, education, exhibits, declassification, and more.

Here are a few examples of how Presidential Libraries pursued the goal of plain writing: 

  • The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum created a new web page titled "Research Overview" to bring together the key points in scheduling a research visit. Instead of spending time explaining rules and helping researchers plan their visits, archivists are able to focus more on better assisting researchers with their topics. The library also developed a new workbook for the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts leadership patch program. The new product is simpler to use and complete. A revised rack card/welcome brochure was simplified for better comprehension and longer shelf life.
  • The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum conducted visitor surveys and an exhibit evaluation of its permanent exhibits, which included in-person and online focus groups. The library worked on its newsletter for educators, which reaches more than 13,000 subscribers twice a year. The library also distributes a subscription-based online resource called “Teaching and Learning Tuesdays” that reaches more than 260,000 subscribers. The resources include lesson plans, activities, videos, primary sources, and reading material for students and teachers. Communications directed at external audiences go through multiple proofreaders across multiple departments. 
  • The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum proofreads and fact-checks all museum text before placement on public display, monitors visitor surveys, and edits labels as needed. In particular, the museum department adapted the exhibit panels and labels in the Dr. Seuss temporary exhibit to better meet the needs of younger visitors. In 2023, the archives department drafted clearer language for correspondence with researchers to alert them to the availability of foundation-funded research grants. The library made the changes with the goal of increasing the number of applications for grants.

Our Web Services

The Web Division of the Office of Innovation is responsible for the development, operations, and maintenance of NARA’s public-facing websites. The Web Division incorporates elements of agile and human-centered design methodologies into its work and, when developing content for the web, follows the standards set within the U.S. Web Design System. In addition, the division offers the following support services to NARA staff in order to strengthen awareness of usability best practices and to ensure our compliance with the Plain Writing Act and related guidance:

User Experience Research — Surveys, user interviews, focus groups, 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 use 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 an iterative fashion; refining web products as user feedback informs final designs and outcomes.

In 2023, the Web Division debuted a redesigned Contact Us form. The division’s User Experience Team updated the form to more efficiently send customer inquiries to the correct NARA office. After a year with the new form, misrouted messages from the form have dropped by 60 percent.

Another  major project in 2023 was the overhaul of to provide users with a cleaner, modern interface that is also more user-friendly. It has been rebranded as the Milestone Documents website.

Plain Language Training

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

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