To effectively communicate with your audience, you must use plain-language techniques to write web content. One of the most popular plain language myths is that you have to "dumb down" your content so that everyone everywhere can read it. That's not true. The first rule of plain language is: write for your audience. Use language your reader knows and feels comfortable with. Take your audience's current level of knowledge into account. Don't write for an 8th grade class if your audience is composed of PhD candidates, small business owners, working parents or immigrants. Only write for 8th graders if your audience is, in fact, an 8th grade class.
Identify and write for your audience
You have to grab your audience's attention if you want to get your ideas across. Let's face it; people want to know just what applies to them. The best way to grab and hold someone's attention is to figure out who they are and what they want to know. Put yourself in their shoes; it will give you a new perspective.
Tell your audience why the material is important to them. Say, "If you want a research grant, here's what you have to do." Or, "If you want to mine federal coal, here's what you should know." Or, "If you want to know what a medical assistant does, read this."
Identifying your audience will do more than ensure that you write clearly! It will also help you focus on the audience's needs. Start out by thinking about what your audience knows about the situation now. Then, think about how to guide them (like this article) from their current knowledge to what you need them to know. To help you do this, try answering the following questions:
- Who is my audience?
- What does my audience already know about the subject?
- What does my audience need to know?
- What questions will my audience have?
- What's the best outcome for our audience? What do I need to say to get this outcome?
For example, you might say “The target audience of my resource is predominantly 25-35 years old, female, with HS Diploma or GED, having no idea about medical assisting and all that goes with it. She is thinking about what career to enter, is considering medical assistant and wants to know more about what is involved.” You have effectively answered all of these questions in one short paragraph.
Organization is key. Start by stating the article's purpose and its bottom line. Eliminate filler and unnecessary content. Put the most important information at the beginning and include background information (when necessary) toward the end.
People read articles and visit websites to get answers. They want to know how to do something or what happens if they don't do something and they want to gain this knowledge quickly. Organize your article to respond to these concerns.
Think through the questions your audience is likely to ask and then organize your material in the order they'd ask them.
Address one person, not a group
Remember that even though your article may affect a thousand or a million people, you are speaking to the one person who is reading it. When your writing reflects this, it's more economical and has a greater impact.
Singular nouns and verbs prevent confusion about whether a requirement applies to individual users or to groups. In the following example, the user might think that each applicant must file applications at several offices.
Individuals and organizations wishing to apply must file applications with the appropriate offices in a timely manner.
You must apply at least 30 days before you need the certification.
a. If you are an individual, apply at the State office in the State where you reside.
b. If you are an organization, apply at the State office in the State where your headquarters is located.
In addressing a single person, you can avoid awkwardness by using “you” to address the reader directly, rather than using “he or she” or “his or her.”
The applicant must provide his or her mailing address and his or her identification number.
You must provide your mailing address and identification number.
Use lots of useful headings
The best-organized article will still be difficult for users to follow if they can't see how it's organized. An effective way to reveal your article's organization is to use lots of useful headings. Headings are also critical for effective web pages. You should use headings liberally on the web to help your user accomplish top tasks.
Question Headings are the most useful type of heading, but only if you know what questions your audience would ask. Most people come to the site or page with certain questions. If you know those questions, use them as headings. They will help the audience find the information they are looking for quickly. Using the question-and-answer format helps your audience scan the article and find specific information.
Why do we use headings?
Statement Headings are the next best choice because they are still very specific.
Example: Headings help guide a reader
Topic Headings are the most formal. But sometimes they're so vague that they just aren't helpful. Topic Headings such as "General", "Application" and "Scope" are so vague they may confuse the user. For example, "Application" might mean an application to your agency from someone reading your article. But it might as easily mean what it applies to.
Tip: It's often useful to start writing your article by developing the headings, structuring them to your audience's concerns. This approach can also reveal major groupings of information that you might want to identify.
Write short sections and paragraphs
Short sections break up material so it appears easier to comprehend. Long, dense sections with no white space are visually unappealing, and give the impression your article is difficult to understand. Short sections appear easier to comprehend, and help you organize your writing more effectively.
Short sections also give you more opportunity to insert informative headings in your material. Remember that boldface section headings give your reader the best roadmap to your article. Long sections are impossible to summarize meaningfully in a heading. When you write short sections, each heading can give the reader information about the entire contents of the section.
If you tell your reader what they're going to read about, they're less likely to have to read your paragraph again. Headings help, but they're not enough. Establish a context for your audience before you provide them with the details. If you flood readers with details first, they become impatient and may resist hearing your message. A good topic sentence draws the audience into your paragraph. Don't make readers hold a lot of information in their heads before they get to your point.
Also, busy readers want to skim your article, stopping only for what they want or need to know. You can help them by giving each a paragraph a good introduction. Readers should be able to get good general understanding of your article by skimming your topic sentences.
A topic sentence may provide a transition from one paragraph to another. But a transition word or phrase (usually in the topic sentence) clearly tells the audience whether the paragraph expands on the paragraph before, contrasts with it, or takes a completely different direction.
One clue that your writing needs to get better is if you find that you can cut and paste paragraphs from one section to another without doing substantial rewriting. If making such rearrangements is easy, then you have not been linking your paragraphs into a coherent whole that reads well from start to finish.
Use the right words
With a relatively small amount of effort and in a relatively short amount of time, you can significantly improve traditionally–written material.
Words matter. They are the most basic building blocks of written and spoken communication. Choose your words carefully – be precise and concise.
The simplest and strongest form of a verb is present tense. A text written in the present tense is more immediate and less complicated. Using the present tense makes your article more direct and forceful. The more you use conditional or future tense, the harder your audience has to work to understand your meaning. Writing entirely in the present tense saves your audience work and helps make your point clearly.
Applicants who were Federal employees at the time that the injury was sustained should have filed a compensation request at that time. Failure to do so could have an effect on the degree to which the applicant can be covered under this part.
You may not be covered under this part if:
a. You were a Federal employee at the time of the injury; and
b. You did not file a claim at that time.
Be concise – leave out unnecessary words. Don't use jargon or technical terms when every day words have the same meaning.
What to avoid:
There is no escaping the fact that it is considered very important to note that a number of various available applicable studies ipso facto have generally identified the fact that additional appropriate nocturnal employment could usually keep juvenile adolescents off thoroughfares during the night hours, including but not limited to the time prior to midnight on weeknights and/or 2 a.m. on weekends.
And the original, using stronger, simpler words:
More night jobs would keep youths off the streets.
Choose your words carefully. Start with your main idea – don't start with an exception. Word order does matter, so place your words carefully.
Express only one idea in each sentence. Long, complicated sentences often mean that you aren't sure about what you want to say. Shorter sentences are also better for conveying complex information; they break the information up into smaller, easier-to-process units.
Sentences loaded with dependent clauses and exceptions confuse the audience by losing the main point in a forest of words. Resist the temptation to put everything in one sentence; break up your idea into its parts and make each one the subject of its own sentence.
If you take less than your entitled share of production for any month, but you pay royalties on the full volume of your entitled share in accordance with the provisions of this section, you will owe no additional royalty for that lease for prior periods when you later take more than your entitled share to balance your account. This also applies when the other participants pay you money to balance your account.
Suppose that one month you pay royalties on your full share of production but take less than your entitled share. In this case, you may balance your account in one of the following ways without having to pay more royalty. You may either:
a. Take more than your entitled share in the future; or
b. Accept payment from other participants.
Following these basic rules will make your articles shine. It is never a waste of time or energy to put your best work on the page. Your readers, your editors, and your bottom line, will thank you for the exceptional effort.