The Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS) does work of all kinds in support of the state. Much of it includes writing. This guide is about doing our writing so it is quick and easy to understand. What is quick and easy? Readers and writers all have their opinions, but the readers are always right. All DAS writing should be easy for all our readers to understand. This guide sets a DAS standard for easy reading. It is also a tool to help DAS writers make it happen.
The plan for easy reading
Almost any plan for change requires four parts. Those parts are a clearly defined goal, minimum standards, ideals to stretch for, and tactics to achieve success. Here is the plan to make all DAS writing easy to read.
- DAS writing goal: To make all DAS writing quick and easy to understand.
- Minimum standard: The minimum standard for DAS publications, memos,
and letters is 10th grade reading. Rules and policies also should meet
that minimum, although in rare cases an administrator may allow a rule
to reach 12th grade reading. To test the grade level of a writing
project, use the readability tools available in your word processing
program or use these online tools:
Check text readability
Juicy Studio - readability test
- Ideals to aim for: Tenth grade is a barely acceptable reading level. We can all make our reading easier so aim for a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of eight or below. Go for a Flesch Reading Ease of 50, 60 or higher. Try for fewer than 15 percent passive sentences. Write so all DAS customers will say our writing is quick and easy to read.
- Tactics: To make reading easy, write simply, in an active voice, with short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Before starting your writing project, invest a few minutes in these strategies for easy reading:
- Define your purpose: The first step is to define the purpose of your writing. You will write to achieve that purpose, editing out anything that does not serve it. For DAS writing, the most frequent purposes are to get readers to do something or understand something.
- Write for your audience: Speak to the newest and least informed of your readers. Try to foresee their questions and supply answers. Don’t worry about boring the experts. They will quickly skim through any clearly and simply organized paper, skipping what they already know. You are the real risk. Are you bored from explaining the same things countless times? Remember, what is old hat to you is almost certainly brand new to some readers.
- Simplify: Organize the paper logically, clearly and simply. Use simple grammar and punctuation. Simplifying is the key to it all.
- Put some effort into your writing: Don't just write and send. The time you spend doing the steps below will save time you would waste dealing with confused readers.
- Write it. Check its spelling and readability level. Read it. Think about it.
- Rewrite it. Do it again until you feel satisfied.
- Proof it. Whenever you can, get someone to proof and critique your draft, especially if it is for wide distribution. Critiques and edits are painful to all writers. But, they can be well worth the pain. Even famous authors must submit their manuscripts to copy editors.
- Finally, publish it.
Readers want their puzzles and mysteries to be complicated. They want everything else to be organized simply. The following tips will help make your writing easier to understand. No tip is as important as producing clear and easy reading at the 10th grade level and below, so bend a writing rule if it makes the writing easier to understand.
Put things into a simple order.
It is usually easiest for the reader if what matters most comes first. Say it. Then support or explain it. This applies to a whole paper, to each paragraph, and to most sentences. Get to the point. Ask yourself, "Why should they read this? What is most important?" Put that first. Well . . . once in a while you might put it last. But, never bury it in the middle.
Cover what matters to the readers.
Think about who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much. Whenever it fits, follow a policy model. State the issue. Recommend a decision or action. Describe options, pros, cons, and costs. In all cases, consider negatives, too. It may help a reader understand if you explain why not as well as why.
Make it no longer than just long enough.
How do you keep from writing a book when a paragraph would do? One method is to build up until you cover things thoroughly. Then think about your purpose and your audience and start tearing down. You can cut away the fat, yet see that bone, muscle and skin remain. By the way, when you write to just one person, one page of text should be enough.
Create a clear and simple layout.
If you write more than two pages, even a memo, lay it out as more than a string of paragraphs. Use bullets, numbers, or headings to help readers find the way. Keep layouts simple and consistent. Preserve white space. (Zoom out to a 10 or 25 percent view to judge your white space.) When you want your reader to do something, ask for it clearly and directly. Don’t bury a request in the middle of a paper or paragraph.
Make requests stand out.
When you want your reader to do something, ask for it clearly and directly. Don’t bury a request in the middle of a paper or paragraph.
It can demean a reader if simple instructions include scolding terms like always, in no case, never, all, or not one. Underlining, bolding, or italicizing the don'ts can have the same ill-effect. It is like shouting.
Be politically correct.
This means to be polite to people you cannot see and do not know. You would never insult a stranger to his face. Avoid doing it in writing.
Use first and second person.
In 1890, third person was required for business writing. By the 1940s, stuffy was becoming passé. Now you may write you and me.
Talk to yourself.
When the writing gets confusing or vague, say to yourself, "What I really mean is __." This can help pull the idea from your mind that didn’t seem to get to your paper.
As you read what you wrote, ask yourself, "So?" or, "So what?" or, "What’s the point?" This can reveal sentences with no point or purpose. Take them out or re-write them. It may also point you toward what you are leaving out.
Improper grammar matters.
It matters to the extent it impairs understanding or reflects poorly on the writer or message. Still, the goal is for readers to easily understand. It is not for writers to impress a teacher. Easy understanding matters more than technicalities. Stay with simple forms and simple grammar.
Make improvement a gradual habit.
Take note of repeated problems. Set your grammar checker to check them for you. Relearn grammar rules for those problems. Or, learn to write around them. The Elements of Style is a classic for common grammar, punctuation and style problems.
Forget perfect grammar.
There is no such thing. Grammar is not a fixed set of rules to which everyone has agreed. Wait . . . could that sentence have read, "Grammar is not a fixed set of rules everyone has agreed to?" Experts disagree. Some say only the first sentence is correct. Others now say both are correct. Rules change with time and circumstances. So, don’t dither too long over them. Remember, the Pulitzer Prize is not for outstanding grammar.
Keep it simple.
Complex punctuation is a warning. It warns of slow, labored reading. Use complex punctuation in your diary. Re-write business writing for simple punctuation. Simple punctuation is a sign of easy reading. How simple?
- Use more periods than commas and more commas than any other punctuation.
- When in doubt about a comma, leave it out. If you have to ponder where to place a comma, the reading may be losing its ease.
- A comma series separated by a semi-colon may be correct, but it means the sentence is too complex. Break it into more sentences.
- Semi-colons can take the place of and, but, or for. Use them rarely.
- When items in bulleted lists form complete sentences, end them with periods, not commas or semi-colons. Lists of short items do not require punctuation.
- Use bullets when list order does not matter. Use numbers if people will want to cite items or if list order is relevant.
- Replace most underlining with italics. Underlined text denotes a hyperlink.
- Hold exclamation points for cartoons, jokes and advertising.
- Slashes (/) are not punctuation. Leave them out.
- The signs %, &, #, and @ belong on cash register keys; not in documents.
One idea apiece.
A paragraph is the place to develop one idea. Reveal its topic in the first sentence. Start a new paragraph when you change topics.
Make them short.
A business paragraph should take the reader a few lines down the page. For full width pages (like a letter) a few lines is about five sentences. In columns, fewer sentences per paragraph will keep readers from being lost.
Make them simple.
Tell three or fewer points about the paragraph topic. If the matter is too complex, break it into more paragraphs. Or, use bullets or numbers.
One idea apiece.
A sentence should hold one idea or concept. This sounds easier than it is. It is hard to root out partial or implied ideas.
For example, you could add usually, normally, or generally to each tip on this page. It could imply that the tip is not an absolute rule. But, that would be a second idea. It would distract from each tip. When we are writers, we think our implied second ideas are important. When we are readers, we find them pointless or confusing.
Use short, simple sentences.
Sentences give warnings to help you spot the ones to rewrite. Complex punctuation is a warning. The conjunctions and, but, and however are warnings. The words if, although, because, whereas, and though are warnings when you use them as openers. All of these warnings tell you to look for extra clauses that might stand alone as sentences.
Use active voice.
Use it 80 to 90 percent of the time. Don't waffle.
- Active Voice is more direct and positive. It puts the actor first, the action second, and anything acted upon last. The subject of the sentence is doing something. Something does something to something. People build budgets. People were building budgets. Build the budget. She built the budget (so blame her).
- Passive Voice is indirect and wimpy. It puts the thing acted upon first. It may leave the actor out. Something is done (perhaps by something). Budgets are built by people. Budgets were built by people. The budget was built (so no one is to blame).
No one likes to read "his or her" over and over. And, no speaker ever says his/her. Write statements intended to apply to both sexes to avoid gender bias:
Bad: An employee should use his discretion.
Better: Employees should use their discretion.
Best: Employees should use discretion.
If necessary, use both pronouns with or: An individual must sign her or his own ballot.
Simplify lists and conditions.
Keep listed items similar in form, purpose and style. Don't take a list of simple things to do and toss in a complex task to be done only under stated conditions. Put that task or its conditions in another paragraph.
Word and phrase tips
Short and simple.
Short words are quick and easy to read. Multisyllabic phraseologies aren't. Don't utilize long words. Use short ones. But, don't confuse short with fewer. Sometimes, more words are easier to read than fewer.
Use common words.
Scrabble is the only place for short, weird, un-used words.
Add value or toss it out.
Throw out words and phrases that add nothing to meaning or reading ease. We say, "in order to," when all we mean is "to." We say, "involve the use of," when we mean, "use."
Say it. Don't talk around it.
Use words that are clear and concrete instead of vague and indirect. Instead of, "significant fiscal impact is a probable outcome," say, "it will likely cost an extra $20 million."
Weed out needless qualifiers or modifiers.
Drop qualifiers that are obvious from the context. When writing to directors, say employees instead of state agency employees. (Or, just say people.) Say agencies instead of state government agencies. (Or, just say you.)
A, an, and the.
You will not help readers by throwing out all the articles. Use them just as you do when talking.
Use common contractions.
Don’t be afraid to use can’t. You won’t be graded.
Avoid stuffy suffixes.
Look out for -ance, -ive, -ity, -ality, -ation, -ize, -ization, and -ational. They usually crop up in passive or stuffy sentences. Make the sentence more active, direct and concrete. "Say what you mean," instead of, "Express your intention." "Avoid," instead of, "practice the avoidance of."
A readability budget.
Think of short words and sentences as putting money in your reader’s bank. Long words spend some of it. Long, complicated sentences spend more of it. Long complicated paragraphs throw the reader’s money away. Budget wisely. You may be forced to invest in words like Legislature, agency or contractor. So, don’t squander savings on however, otherwise, necessarily, indicate, and specific.
The problem is habit. We pick our words and phrases by habit. The task is to replace big-word habits with small-word habits. The way to do it is to make a personal list of your own big words and useless phrases. Talk to others or use a thesaurus to find the right small words to replace them. A little practice and those new, short words will be your new habits. The next section contains examples.
Here is a sample list of habit changers. Make your own.
Notes for skeptics
You may think it is demeaning to have to write down to a low grade level. Not so. No one is too educated to write plainly. Stephen Hawking has made millions of dollars putting his amazing knowledge of physics into simple words. If we truly understand a complex matter, we can learn to explain it to people who do not know it as well as we do. In fact, people have done that for us all of our lives.
Plain writing helps readers. It also helps writers. Putting things into simple terms helps uncover ideas and issues we would have missed. It brings out our clearest thinking. And, it's the law. "Every state agency shall prepare its public writings in language that is as clear and simple as possible." (ORS 183.025 (1)). Several agencies have specific grade level requirements imposed on them by law.
Writing to a 10th grade level does not mean a highly educated person will find us boring. A lot of great literature is elementary grade level. The 23rd Psalm is an extreme example. It is below the third grade level. Its reading ease score is above 96 and it has no passive sentences.
Here are some others, found randomly through a Web search for "great writing":
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: Fifth grade level, reading ease of 77, and 20 percent passive sentences.
"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" by Agatha Christie: Fourth grade level, reading ease of 78, and two percent passive sentences.
"On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill: Seventh grade level, reading ease of 62, and 14 percent passive sentences.
The readability for this guide is fifth grade level, reading ease of 75, and three percent passive sentences.
One last point. Even if we can write so only a college graduate can grasp our meaning, why on earth would our readers want us to?
Many useful books exist on making life easy for readers. Most books on business writing will cover the principles described in this paper. They will provide more detail and, of course, disagree on some points.
Expanded articles on the top three rules of writing:
Oregon's plain language website: http://plainlanguage.oregon.gov