EPA Plain Writing Initiative
What is Plain Writing?
On this page:
- Sentences and Paragraphs
- Combating Wordiness: Writing to Express, Not Impress
- Keep it in the Courtroom
- Be Concrete
- Be Consistent
- Noun Sandwiches
- Organized Writing
- Identify the Audience
- Write to the Reader
- Focus on the Reader’s Needs
- Focus on Key Information
- Active Voice
- Action Verbs
- Writing Positively
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employees make decisions that ultimately affect the lives of millions of Americans. If the EPA fails to communicate these decisions or if the decision-making process appears confusing, then protecting human health and the environment will become even more difficult.
Plain writing does not advocate for the shortening of agency writing. Rather, it advocates for writing that is straightforward, clear and precise. Plain writing does not always mean substituting simple words at the expense of more accurate, appropriate words or removing complex information to make your writing more reader-friendly. Sometimes it is necessary to include complex information in your writing, but plain writing will help ensure it is accessible and will be understood.
Writing techniques used in the plain-writing style aim to help readers understand communication the first time they read or hear content by using common, everyday words; short, but clear and concise, sentences; and logical organization. The plain-writing style saves the agency and the public time and confusion and provides good customer service.
Working with the Plain Language Action and Information Network, the EPA uses the plain writing style to improve the clarity of correspondence, press materials, fact sheets, websites, reports and other critical documents.
Clearly and directly organized writing sends a message to readers that the writer has considered who the readers are and has taken an interest in addressing their needs. Readers are more likely to be receptive to messages when writers engage them.
Identify the Audience
Think about why the reader is reading the document. Whether to voice an opinion, provide factual information or ask questions, the reader had a specific reason for writing to the EPA. Public servants have the responsibility to address the writer’s concerns fully.
Write to the Reader
Write to express, not impress. Do not write technical or legal documents unless they are the intended for that audience. Tailor writings to the audience, such as an elected official, scientist, association leader or a student. Legal language and government jargon are often confusing to the average reader and even to some experts. Use common, everyday words, whenever possible, to convey the message.
Writers should ask themselves:
– Who is my reader?
– What does my reader need to know?
– What does my reader already know about the subject?
– What questions will my reader have?
Focus on the Reader’s Needs
After drafting, writers should ask themselves:
– Have I written directly and in a positive tone?
– Has my document been edited and organized properly?
– Have I avoided including acronyms, jargon, parenthetical expressions, passive voice and unnecessary information?
Focus on Key Information
Readers read to get answers, not complicated, wordy explanations. To help readers find specific information more easily, writers should:
– put your main idea first;
– divide material into short sections;
– group related ideas together;
– organize material in a way that makes sense;
– summarize complicated topics before describing all the details;
– place items of most interest to readers at the beginning;
– include only information that readers actually need;
– include breaks between large amounts of information; and
– not restate the obvious, especially just to use up space on the page.
A sentence’s voice indicates whether its subject acts or is acted upon. When the subject does something or acts, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject receives the action or is acted upon, the verb is in the passive voice. Active voice makes it clear who has acted and who is responsible for what action. Active voice is important so that readers can easily tell who did what action.
Government writing has long overused the passive voice. One of the hallmarks of bureaucratese is use of the passive voice.
Active voice follows natural sentence structure: doer-verb-receiver of action.
The coordinator (doer) wrote (verb) the correspondence (receiver).
Passive voice reverses natural sentence structure.
The correspondence (receiver) was written (verb) by the coordinator (doer).
With passive voice, sentences are usually longer and responsibility is not as clear. Sentences written in the passive voice are obscure and often raise more questions than provide answers.
The following examples illustrate the use of action verbs:
|use of general verbs||use of action verbs|
|to give consideration||to consider|
|to make payment||to pay|
|to give recognition to||to recognize|
|to make preparations for||to prepare for|
|to undertake an analysis||to analyze|
|as stated in||states|
Tone is the writer’s attitude toward the subject or reader. The EPA is responsible for writing documents that are well-written and respectful to readers. This can be accomplished by using a personable, but professional, tone.
Since much of EPA writing is routine, tone can cause problems when in writings that address delicate matters. Though pronouns such as you, we and our are used when feelings are involved, one misused word can offend the reader.
Be sensitive, not heavy-handed, accusatory or defensive with readers. Insensitive writing does not convey the courtesy or goodwill readers expect.
In the example below, the first sentence uses an accusatory tone by using failed, while the second sentence addresses the matter using a neutral tone. Even though the second sentence uses the passive voice, it is the preferable construction to convey the denial.
Because you have failed to address this issue, we must deny your permit request.
Since the time period to address this issue has passed, we deny your permit request.
Avoid negative writing. Unless there is a specific reason to caution the reader against something, it is best to use positive language. Positive statements are generally clearer and more concise. Not all negative words can be removed from writing but, by following the guidelines below, writing can be more positive.
|The paperwork will not be ready until Monday.||The paperwork will be ready Monday.|
|You did not complete the form.||You will need to complete the form.|
|You are prohibited from entering.||You must have clearance to enter.|
|Stop sending letters to this address.||The correct address to send letters is...|
Avoid using multiple negatives in one sentence.
Negative: A decision will not be made unless all information has been received.
Positive: A decision will be made when all information has been received.
Negative: The request cannot be approved without payment.
Positive: The request will be approved when payment has been received.
Wordy: The EPA has mandated clean air and water guidelines through the EPA’s Office of General Counsel.
Better:The EPA has mandated clean air and water guidelines though its Office of General Counsel.
The example above illustrates the use of a possessive pronoun to make the sentence more natural. Its refers to the subject, the EPA, without being repetitive.
Pronouns can be used to communicate the agency’s accountability to the public and avoid using the passive voice.
The use of you or your in addressing the readers reinforces the message that the documents are intended specifically for them in a way that he, she and they cannot. More than any other single technique, using you pulls readers into the writing and makes it relevant to them.
Though pronouns are helpful, be careful not to overuse them. Using I or we at the beginning of more than a few sentences becomes monotonous and might convey self-centeredness or an impersonal tone. Do not overuse pronouns in reference to the EPA.
I and my should be used to attribute an action specifically to the writer, not the entire agency.
Using I routinely at the beginning of sentences places the focus on the writer, not the reader. “I would like to express”…“I would like to notify you”…“I have the utmost regard” sounds like “me, me, me” to the reader. Remember to write for the reader.
Do not use pronouns in situations that might lead the reader to feel personally attacked or blamed.
|You made a mistake processing the file.||A mistake was made when processing the file.|
|The error you made cost the agency.||The error that was made cost the agency.|
By removing you from the sentence, the writer abstains from attributing individual blame, which might alienate the reader. Sometimes the passive voice is preferable to the active voice.
Sentences and Paragraphs
Compact, concise writing reflects clear thinking. Short, straight-forward sentences and paragraphs help readers find the information they are looking for without having to trudge through long, tortured and complicated explanations.
Topic sentences should be used at the beginning of a paragraph when ideas are complex or information-heavy. Think of a topic sentence as a bull’s-eye; it pinpoints where a paragraph is heading and what information will be addressed.
Never begin a letter with the superfluous phrase I am writing to or any similar phrase. The reader will be holding a letter in her or his hands; there is no need to tell the reader that you are writing a letter. It is obvious to the reader.
Short paragraphs that include basic information do not need a topic sentence. In the example below, the topic sentence before the colon adds nothing but unnecessary information to the paragraph, and the details that follow are obvious to the reader. Similar constructions that begin with Listed below are or variations also should be removed.
Here are details about tomorrow’s conference: the EPA’s FOIA training conference will be held on January 4, 2012, at the Crystal City Marriott. Registration will begin at 8 a.m. Guest speakers will include Bob Smith, Jane Doe, and Joe Q. Public. Bag lunches will be provided.
Short paragraphs are important at the opening of your document. Like long sentences, long paragraphs swamp your ideas and discourage readers. Cover one topic fully in each paragraph before moving onto the next. If necessary, take more than one paragraph to completely address a complex topic.
Distinct paragraphs flow in a structured manner with the most important information at the beginning, immediately addressing the reader’s needs.
Combating Wordiness: Writing to Express, Not Impress
Take out unnecessary words. Do not use big words to impress readers; the goal is to provide information that can be easily read and understood the first time it is read. When proofreading, tighten the writing so that it includes only necessary information and words.
It is unnecessary and often against the Plain Writing Act to use a long word or phrase when a simple one will do. The following list includes words and phrases that are often used to impress instead of express and includes their plain-writing substitutions.
|a and/or b||a, b or both|
|a number of||some|
|accomplish||carry out, do|
|accurate||correct, exact, right|
|additional||added, more, other|
|adjacent to||next to|
|adversely impact||hurt, harm, set back|
|afford an opportunity allow,||let|
|a number of||some|
|apparent||clear, plain, obvious|
|appropriate||proper, right, correct|
|as a means of||to|
|ascertain||find out, learn|
|as prescribed by||in, under|
|assist, assistance||aid, help|
|at the present time||now, at present, presently|
|because of the fact that||since, because|
|by means of||by, with|
|close proximity||near, around|
|comprise||form, include, make up|
|consolidate||combine, merge, join|
|constitutes||is, forms, makes up|
|deem||believe, consider, think|
|designate||appoint, name, choose|
|disseminate||give, issue, pass, send|
|due to the fact that||due to, since, because|
|during the period||during|
|expedite||hasten, speed up|
|failed to||did not|
|feasible||workable, can be done|
|for a period of||for|
|for the period of||for; from|
|for the purpose of||for, to|
|forfeit||give up, lose|
|function||act, role, work|
|has a requirement for||needs, requires|
|heretofore||until now, until this point|
|identify||find, name, show|
|implement||start, carry out|
|in accordance with||by, following, per, under|
|in addition||also, besides, too|
|in an effort to||to|
|in a timely manner||on time, promptly|
|in lieu of||instead, instead of|
|in many cases||often|
|in order that||for, so,|
|in order to||to|
|in regard to||about, concerning, on|
|in the amount of||for|
|in the event (of)||if|
|in the near future||soon, shortly|
|in view of||since, because|
|in view of the above||so|
|is applicable to||applies to|
|is authorized to||may|
|is in consonance with agrees with,||follows|
|is responsible for||handles|
|it is essential||must, need to|
|it is requested||please, we (or I) request|
|incumbent upon||must, based on|
|interface||meet, work with,|
|interpose no objection||do not object|
|limited number||limits, limited|
|maximum||greatest, largest, most|
|not later than||by, before|
|notwithstanding||still, in spite of|
|operate||use, work, run|
|optimum||best, greatest, most|
|pertaining to||about, on, of|
|proceed||do, go ahead, try|
|provide||give, offer, say|
|provides guidance for||guides|
|pursuant to||by, following, per, under|
|regarding||about, of, on|
|relative to||about, on|
|set forth in||in|
|signed into law||signed|
|solicit||ask for, request|
|subsequently||after, later, then|
|successfully complete||complete, pass|
|the month of||Janaury|
|the question as to whether||whether|
|there is, there are, that is, that are||rewrite to avoid|
|the undersigned||I, you|
|this agency, this office||we, us|
|time period||time, period|
|under the provisions of||under|
|until such time as||until|
|warrant||call for, permit|
|with reference to||about|
|with the exception of||except for|
|aforesaid/aforementioned||the, those, that|
|heretofore||until now, up to this point|
|herewith is||here is|
|notwithstanding||in spite of|
|the undersigned||I, you, we|
To do what? About what? To whom is this sentence speaking? Which offices are in agreement? These are some of the questions that arise when sentences are vague. Concrete writing includes specifics, not general terms that are often obscure and do not reveal much more information than the example above does. General terms are used to sum up information when the reader is already knows to what the writer is referring.
In the example above, offices could represent the Office of the Executive Secretariat, the Office of Research and Development, the Office of Administration and Resources Management, the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs or any agency program and regional offices. Unless the reader already knows the specific references, he or she will be lost. Be concrete in writing and spell out specifics. It might take longer to write all of the information out, but it will prevent confusion on the reader’s part.
Use the same terms consistently throughout the writing to identify specific thoughts or subjects. If writing the EPA employees, continue to use this term throughout. Do not substitute another term, such as agency personnel, which might lead the reader to question whether this refers to the same group of individuals.
These expressions delay meaning and tangle sentences. Unless it refers to a person, place or thing that has already been mentioned, avoid beginning your sentences with it. There is, there are and I want to delay the sentence from getting to the point and might force readers to return to a previous sentence for reference. In many instances, simple subtraction of these terms will result in a clearer message.
|It is our intention||We intend|
|It is apparent that||Clearly|
|It is my understanding||I understand|
|It is recognized that||We recognize|
There is/There are
Before: There are some rules that must be followed.
After: Some rules must be followed.
Before: There is a need to ensure office safety.
After: A need to ensure office safety exists.
Before: There will be a mandatory staff meeting in the Green Room today.
After: A mandatory staff meeting will be held today in the Green Room.
I want to
Do not waste the reader’s time building up to your point. Just say it.
Before: I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your many years of service to the EPA.
After: Thank you for your many years of service to the EPA.
|Rather than Saying...||Say|
|I absolutely agree||I agree|
|I certainly believe||I believe|
|I successfully completed||I completed|
|I really feel bad||I feel bad|
The latter sentence sounds more professional.
We are extremely excited about this initiative.
We are excited about this initiative.
Do not repeat a general idea by using similar words. Often used to emphasize a thought or idea, doublings tend to overemphasize. Though the writer may use doublings to complement an idea, they are of little use to a reader.
|Common Doublings||Use One|
|any and all||any or all|
|s each and every||each or every|
|full and complete||full or complete|
|stimulated and interested||stimulated or interested|
|help and support||help or support|
|review and comment||review or comment|
|interest and concern||interest or concern|
|order and direct||order or direct|
Before: We are pleased and delighted to offer you a position in our office.
After: We are pleased to offer you a position in our office.
After: We are delighted to offer you a position in our office.
Noun sandwiches are clusters, or long strings, of nouns that are sandwiched together. The use of prepositions help break up these noun sandwiches and help make your intended meaning clearer.
Before: underground water supply safety testing program
After: program for testing the underground water supply