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The Plain Language Process

Steps for Effective Writing

Effective writing does not come by chance. The creation of all documents, including forms, labels, websites, business letters, legal notices, manuals, procedures, reports, and proposals, usually involves the following steps:

  1. Discovery. Find out what information the audience needs and how they will use it. Consult with prospective readers to develop prototypes and behavioral objectives. Gather resources. Interview subject-matter experts. Find out what written materials are already available. Find out problems created by current documents and practices that need correcting.
  2. Design. Based on discovery, decide on the physical media, layout, presentation, and organization of the document. Get internal sign-offs from all sponsors on the document's outline and prototype.
  3. Development. With an eye always on on your objectives and the interests and reading habits of your audience, start writing using:
    1. Simple, short sentences.
    2. Familiar words and no jargon.
    3. Active voice.
    4. Action verbs.
    5. No noun clusters.
    6. No undefined acronyms.
    7. Clear organization.
    8. No duplication of information.
  4. Collaboration. Engage editors, peers, and content experts to check for precision and accuracy. Revise and revise. The bigger the project, the more collaborators you need.
  5. Indexing. A major requirement for any manual or other large document.
  6. Testing. Using members of the targeted audience, test for readability, usability, tone, and style. Solve newly discovered problems.
  7. Production. Publish and distribute the document in the required formats and media.
  8. Evaluation. Develop a written consensus on what was learned from this project. See how well your document solves the problems noted in the discovery.

In most situations, the above steps overlap. Some documents require repeated editing and revision. The element of discovery–finding problems and their solutions–should go on throughout the whole process. Each step should also refer back to the behavioral objectives and forward to the tests: "How can we know if this document is successful?"

Remember, the main goal of plain language is to remove as much ambiguity as possible. You want to bullet-proof the document, making it impossible to misunderstand.

The plain-language process described here is also the syllabus of the Impact Information plain-language seminars. Each 3-hour or 6-hour session covers the above steps in detail, along with ample resources from which writers can access more information. In the 6-hour seminar, there is more time for hands-on practice with in-house documents and samples. Each seminar addresses the particular requirements of the organization and the attendees.

William H. DuBay
15903 Vincent Rd. N.W.
Poulsbo, WA 98370
Phone: 360 261 8955
Email: info@impact-information.com