Government content needs to communicate in a way that most people understand.
The best way to do this is by using common words, or plain English.
Writing in plain English means using simpler and more direct language.
It does not mean ‘dumbing down’ information. Plain English helps people make decisions and builds trust.
Plain English improves readability for all users.
How to write in plain English
- Avoid jargon so the user can understand the content the first time they read it.
- Use active voice — not passive.
- Use the shorter, plain English word, term, sentence and paragraph over the longer.
- Minimise punctuation. Use several short sentences instead of a long sentence broken up with punctuation.
- Aim for an age 9 reading level.
Make sure all of the users can understand
If you’re writing for a specialist audience, you still need to make sure everyone can understand what the content is about.
Write in plain English so everyone can understand, regardless of their ability.
Think about the needs of users who speak a language other than English.
Plain English words and terms
|Don't write this
|a number of
||some, many, few
|address this issue
||look for solutions, solve this problem
|adequate number of
|as a consequence of
|at a later date
|at the time of writing, at this point in time
||aware of, know
|create a dialogue with them
||speak to them
||say what you are doing, for example 'increasing' ...
|despite the fact that
|due to the fact that
||because, since, as
|during the month of September
||create, set-up, form
||look at, check, discuss
|give consideration to
||think about, consider
|have the capacity to
||set, create, decide on, know, recognise
|if this is not the case
|if this is the case
|in accordance with
||in line with
||apply, install, do
|in order to
|in receipt of
||get, have, receive, receiving
|in relation to
|in the event of, in the event that
|in the light of, in view of
|it is requested that you declare
||you should declare
|it should be noted that
||note that, remember that
|key, important, primary
||use, build on
|make an application
|make a complaint
||even though, though
|provide a response to
|provide assistance with
|reach a decision
||need or must
|table (verb) — unless tabling a document in parliament
||address, discuss, release
|that is the reason why
||that is why
|the way in which
|the reason is because
||because, the reason is
|until such time as
|whether or not
|with reference to, with regard to, with respect to
Readability is about how easy or hard it is for a user to understand text.
Content with a good readability level helps users know what to do. This includes users with lower comprehension skills.
Aim to make content as readable as possible. This makes it more accessible for everyone, not only users with low literacy. Plain English helps specialist and technical audiences too.
Aim for age 9 reading level
It’s good to aim for age 9 reading level. Someone who is age 9 would be in Australian Year 3 or Year 4.
WCAG criteria 3.1.5 (Level AAA) recommends you write to lower secondary education level. This is Year 7 to Year 8 in Australia, or between 12 to 14 years old.
Even if you aren’t able to achieve an age 9 reading level, the more readable you can make content the better it is for everyone.
How people read
When most people reach age 9 reading level the way they read content has changed.
By 9 years old most children stop reading whole words and start reading by recognising shapes. This allows people to read much faster.
Most readers don’t read single words in order. They bounce backwards and forwards, especially online. They expect words and fill them in.
An adult brain can drop up to 30% of the text and still understand the content.
When a user reaches a word or phrase that is unfamiliar or difficult it slows down their understanding. If they experience too much of this they lose confidence in the content and may give up.
A person’s vocabulary will grow as they age but the shape-recognition skill stays with them.
Readability tools can show where you can improve content. They can also give you useful metrics to use to suggest changes to stakeholders.
Readability tools often use US school grades as a guide. These are different to Australian grades, so it can better to talk about age instead.
Some tools give suggestions to make text more readable. Be careful using automatic recommendations. Sometimes the user will be more familiar with a longer keyword.
Flesch reading ease
The ‘Flesch reading ease’ index is a common measure for content. Many readability tools use it. The index is a scale from 1 to 100. A higher score is easier to read.
A score of 100 on the Flesch reading ease index should be readable by someone who reads at US school Grade 5 level. This is an age 10 to 11 reading level. But it’s better to aim for age 9 (between US Grade 3 and Grade 4).
There are other popular scales used by readability tools. For example, Hemingway Editor uses the automated readability index, which is also based on US school grades.
Don’t just test the reading level
As well as readability, you need to test:
- findability — can users easily find it?
- comprehension — can users understand it?
- engagement — do users read enough of it to understand or skim over it?
- effectiveness — does it provide the right information/answers and cover what the user needs to know?
The modern government tone is direct, calm and understated:
- Speak politely and use language that is positive but sensitive and respectful.
- Be aware who you are writing for.
- Be conscious of what the user needs to do.
- Tell the user what they need to know.
Use first and second pronouns (I, we, us and you) to establish a connection with the user.
Avoid third person nouns (Australian Government Department of X) and pronouns (he, she, it and they).
Tell us if you have trouble with your account.
If the subscriber is having difficulty accessing their account, the finance team can provide further guidance.
Use ‘they’ and ‘them’ when talking about, rather than to someone or something.
third person pronouns
User research is a team sport. We’re all responsible for meeting their needs.
Use active voice (subject-verb-object).
Use first and second person (we, us) instead of third person (he, she, it and they).
Active voice gets straight to the point.
Avoid passive voice (object-verb-subject).
Passive voice usually makes it difficult to know who did what to whom and sends the reader backwards.
using active voice
- The committee (subject) campaigned (verb) to lower diabetes (object).
- We (subject) did not accept (verb) your application (object).
- The lowering of diabetes was campaigned for by the committee.
- It was deemed your application was unsuccessful.
You can use passive voice if you can’t specify the do-er of the action.
using passive voice
The part-time role was approved in March.
Use contractions carefully to be more conversational.