Open Government at the National Archives

Plain Writing Tips - First Things First

[This week's plain language writing tip comes to us from the Marvelously Meticulous Mary Ryan.]

When I was young, I saw a comedy sketch about two inexperienced people trying to defuse a bomb. One read the instructions while the other carried out the actions. After the person with the cutter had followed directions and snipped a wire, the reader proceeded, "but first . . ."

That skit has stuck with me for all these years and illustrates the importance of clear instructions. Good instructions tell you what you need to know and when you need to perform an action. Whether you're telling someone how to request a copy of a record, apply for a grant, or find something online, you don’t want to get stuck with a "but first" moment.

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.

If you want to announce that newly digitized records are online, tell the reader in the first paragraph what the records are and how to access them. Don't make the reader ask, "But what do you want me to do?"

Part 1 of the NARA Style Guide advises: "Before you start writing, think about what you want to say and what order it makes the most sense to say it. Organize to serve your audience's needs. Think about the questions your audience will have and the order in which those questions will most naturally arise."

Readers don't have much patience for digging through lots of words so they can find what they need. If you clearly tell them what they need to know and do, you'll cut down on their aggravation and get better prepared responses.

Do you have any examples to add to this list? If so, please share them with us! Email

Top of Page