Open Government at the National Archives

Plain Writing Tips - Why? The Plain Writing Act of 2010

[This post comes to us from Plain Writing Pro Mary Ryan.]

Just over a year ago, we published "Why do we do what we do?" With another year gone by, we’re asking that question again.

The easy answer is 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.

The guidance clarifies that plain writing is "appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience . . . [and] avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity." It reinforces the law's requirement that Federal agencies must "write all new or substantially revised documents in plain writing."

OMB stresses that plain writing is not just a formal requirement but "can be essential to the successful achievement of legislative and administrative goals, and it also promotes the rule of law."

So—what we do to promote plain writing is not just window dressing. If you're taking the time to write something, you must want people to read and understand it. Maybe you want the reader to take some action. Then you definitely want the reader to easily understand the message and take the appropriate action.

The goal of plain writing is not just to follow rules. The goal is clear communication. If thinking about rules makes you freeze at the keyboard, then don't obsess about rules. Instead, think about getting your message across clearly. Ask yourself, "How will this sound to someone who is not familiar with my topic? Is the reader getting what he or she needs? Does it take more than one reading to understand the message?"

This post has been full of quotations, but here's one more, from the beginning of the NARA Style Guide: "Ultimately, your job will be easier and more pleasant if you take the time to communicate clearly."

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

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