Open Government at the National Archives

Plain Writing Tips - Read Me!

Today’s post comes to us from Encouraging Editor Mary Ryan.

I recently received a notice in the mail telling me that I might be a party in a class action suit. I have no idea what the issue was (credit cards? airlines?), but its dense text in small type didn’t encourage me to find out. It reminded me of the terms of use that pop up on some websites. How many people actually read those before clicking “agree”?

The writers of those documents probably count on us not reading every word, but we generally do want people to read what we’ve written.

How can we make our writing appear more inviting and be more understandable to our readers?

Our newly revised NARA Style Guide can help.

Part 2 of the guide begins with this advice: “The reader should be able to tell at a glance what the document is, how it is organized, and where the important points are. . . . The page should invite reading, not discourage it.”

After you’ve written something—whether it’s a letter, memo, blog post, archival description, or report—look back over the page and ask yourself if it looks inviting or discouraging. Can you grasp the main points at a glance, or must you work to pull out the critical information? You might even ask a colleague for a second opinion.

The style guide has these suggestions for formatting:

  • Use headings to guide the reader through the major subjects.
  • Isolate important sentences so the reader will see them. It’s OK to write a one-sentence paragraph. You can also use bold type to draw the eye to critical text.
  • Leave the right margin ragged. Justified type sometimes causes odd spacing between words.
  • Leave plenty of white space—break up your paragraphs, and give the reader’s eye a place to focus.
  • Use tables to present comparisons or connections. (A list of staff and their phone numbers would work better as a table than as a paragraph.)
  • Use vertical lists. (Use bullets if the order is not important; use numbers if the steps must be followed in order.)

But . . . think about what will work best for your document before you try to use all the techniques at once.

Writers can easily go overboard with bold type, bulleted lists, tables, headings and subheadings, and the like. If there’s too much going on, the page will look cluttered and distracting.

You put a lot of work into what you’ve written, and you want people to read and understand it. Make it easy for them!