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EPA Plain Writing Initiative

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions


How does the EPA use plain writing?
In general, writers at the EPA will :

  • Organize material to serve the needs of readers;
  • Write sentences in the active voice and use you and other pronouns;
  • Use common, everyday words in short sentences;
  • Write short sentences and sections; and
  • Use easy-to-read design features like lists, tables, graphics and "white space."

What types of documents will the EPA write in plain writing under the Plain Writing Act of 2010?
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 instructs agencies to write in plain writing any documents that:

  • are necessary for obtaining any federal government benefit or service;
  • provide information about any federal government benefit or service;
  • explain to the public how to comply with a requirement that the federal government administers or enforces; and
  • are written for the public.

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What are "common, everyday words"?
Common, everyday words are words and phrases an average reader is understands and likely to prefer over legalistic or bureaucratic terms.

Compare this: When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.

To this: If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.

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How should the EPA’s writers organize documents to serve the needs of readers?
In general, writers at the EPA strive to:

  • Explain how a document is organized and how to use it;
  • Use descriptive headings to help readers find specific information more easily;
  • Summarize complicated topics before describing all the details;
  • Place items of most interest to readers at the beginning of a document;
  • Start by answering general questions and move on to specific questions later.;
  • Describe a process in chronological order; and
  • Include only information readers actually need.

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Will everything now appear in question and answer format?
No, but the question-and-answer format is useful for organizing material around a reader's interests. It is a more direct way to speak to our readers, and it helps the EPA anticipate questions the public may have on a given policy or announcement.

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How long is a sentence written in plain writing?
Plainly written sentences should average 15 - 20 words and never run longer than 40 words.

Compare this: The Secretary of the Interior may, in specific cases or in specific geographic areas, adopt or make applicable to off-reservation Indian lands all or any part of such laws, ordinances, codes, resolutions, rules or other regulations of the state and political subdivisions in which the land is located as the Secretary shall determine to be in the best interest of the Indian owner or owners in achieving the highest and best use of such property.

To this: We may apply state or local laws to off-reservation lands. We will do this only if it will help the Indian owners make the best use of their lands.

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Does plain writing reduce the precision the EPA needs to enforce the law?
No. Using plain writing improves the clarity of the EPA’s communications. Clarity and precision usually go hand in hand. If our audience requires specific technical or legal details, the EPA will include them. The EPA’s writers also consult closely with the Office of General Counsel in developing regulations and other materials.

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What types of rulemaking documents will the EPA write in plain writing?
The EPA will use plain writing in notices of data availability, technical amendments, Notices of Proposed Rulemaking, Final Rulemakings and other notices related to rulemaking. The EPA will also attempt to improve the clarity of regulatory support documents like background information documents, economic assessments, risk assessments, and other technical support documents.

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What if the EPA is simply revising a portion of an existing rule?
We should be able to use most of the elements of plain writing when revising only a portion or adding to an existing rule.

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Is there one person responsible for plain writing at the EPA?
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 instructs agencies to designate a Senior Official for Plain Writing. Eric Wachter, in his capacity as director of the Office of the Executive Secretariat in the Office of the Administrator, serves as this senior official.

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Where can I learn more about plain writing?
The PLAIN website is another excellent resource for plain writing.

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