Open Government at the National Archives

Plain Language Writing Tips

These are examples of writing tips that are posted on the National Archives internal website for staff. We offer these tips to staff so their communication with the public is easier to understand and fits in with the principles of plain writing.

  • Why? The Plain Writing Act of 2010

    The act states that "Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly." While the act is quite short, the final guidance issued on April 13, 2011, by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) goes into more detail.

  • Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

    One of the most common "sentence structure" problems that editors run across is the distance writers put between the subject and the verb.

  • Comma or No Comma?

    One of the biggest problems for some writers is deciding where to put commas and where NOT to put them.

  • First Things First

    You don't have to be writing an explicit set of instructions to be aware of the importance of order. Whenever you have something to tell someone, ask yourself "What is the most important information for my audience?" Then put that information at the top.

  • The Department of Redundancy Department

    Major events - like this week's Hurricane Sandy - are magnets for superlatives. Is each word necessary?

  • Passive Voice and Zombies

    Like mindless zombies thwarted by a chain-link fence, many writers struggle with the passive voice. There's something about official writing that suddenly makes writers suddenly unable to use pronouns.

  • Tightening Up

    Go through your text word by word and find places to tighten your writing. Here are some commonly used but wordy phrases that can be tightened up and make your text shorter by using one word instead of several.

  • 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 to:

  • 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.​

  • Read Me!

    Try using headings, lists, space, and tables to present your material more clearly and make it easier to read.

  • 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.

  • 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 multi-faceted subjects.​

  • 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 contrained, but we don't have use them when we talk to each other.

  • 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.​

National Archives staff are continually informed about plain writing through internal newsletter articles, an internal web page, weekly writing tips, and blog posts on plain writing.

Contact us if you have suggestions on ways to improve our documents or website. Email