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Writing for Easy Reading
About Writing
Writing so our customers find our documents easy to read and understand
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 DAS 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. In MS Word, use a Flesch Kincaid Grade Level of 10 or below. Rules and policies should meet that minimum, too. In rare cases of need, administrators may allow a rule to reach 12th grade.

Ideals to Aim For
Tenth grade is barely okay. We can all make our reading easier. 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. (The Pentagon might call this SASSS.)

Basic Strategies
Here are some basics that will make it easy for readers.

Define your purpose.
The first step is to define your purpose to yourself. 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.
The goal is to make things quick and easy for readers. If the readers will be many, speak to the newest and least informed. 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.

Make it simple.
Most readers are busy. They don’t have time to hunt for meaning. So, simplify their work at every level. Organize the paper logically, clearly, and simply. Use simple words, sentences, and paragraphs. 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 basic steps are these. Write it. Check its spelling and readability level. Read it. Think about it. Rewrite it. Do it again until you feel satisfied. Then proof it (another person can often proof better than the author can). Finally, mail it. The time you spend doing this saves time you would waste dealing with confused readers.
 
Whenever you can, get someone to 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. In fact, even famous authors must submit their manuscripts to copy editors. The manuscripts come back with proposed changes to approve or negotiate.

Document Tips
Clarity and Simplicity
Readers want their puzzles and mysteries to be complicated. They want everything else to be organized simply.
 
Writers may break and bend a writing rule to make their writing easier to understand. Sometimes a bent rule adds variety. Sometimes circumstances demand it. You should do the same kind of thing with the tips that follow. No tip is as important as producing clear and easy reading at the 10th grade and below.

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 it first. Well . . . once in a while you might put it last. But, never bury it in the middle.

Cover what matters to the readers.
You decide what matters. 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 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.)

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.

Show some respect.
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.
All that means is 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. This is a new century. You may write me and you.

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.

Grammar tips
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. Usage rules change with time and circumstances. So, don’t dither too long over them. Remember, the Pulitzer Prize is not for outstanding grammar.

Punctuation Tips
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.
  • Use periods, not commas and semi-colons, to end items in bulleted lists. Try no punctuation at all in a table or a list of very short items.
  • 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. You learned to underline titles in school only because typewriters (remember them?) could not type italics. Today, underlined text denotes a hyperlink.  
  • Hold all exclamation points for cartoons, jokes, and advertising.
  • Slashes (/) are not punctuation. They are hash. Leave them out.
  • The signs %, &, #, and @ belong on cash register keys; not in documents.

Paragraph Tips
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.

Sentence Tips
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 in this paper. 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.

Warning signs.
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: This style 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: This style 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).

Gender.
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.
Short words and sentences put 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. Some examples follow.

Habit Changers
A sample list of habit changers (make your own)
 
Old Habit
New Habit
All, every, never, always, immediately, promptly, without delay, without exception, or else
Avoid these in instructions. They sound snooty.
And/or
Use and or use or. Or, spell out the complex idea behind "and-or-or", if it’s really important.
Any or all, partly or fully, contact and discuss with, write and mail
Drop at least half of each pair. If you can do or have any, you can do or have all.
Approximately
About, around, close to, more than, less than, fewer than, nearly
Both blank A and blank B
Drop both. It adds no meaning.
Category, categorized
Class, group, type.
Completed, completion
Done, end, ended, finish, finished
Construct, construction
Build, building
Continue to
Keep
Employee, individual, separate individuals
Person, each person, each one, people
Every
Each, all
 
Facility, facilities, institution
Structure, building, grounds and structures, campus
For the purpose of
For
For the reason that
Since, because, due to
Has authority to, is authorized to
Can, may, is allowed to
Indicate, identify, specify, delineate, specify
Show, say, tell, list, detail, describe, include, enter
Is knowledgeable of
Knows, knows about
Necessary, necessity
Need, needed, needful
Occasionally
Sometimes, from time to time, now and then
Operate
Run, use, control, manage
Request, requested
Ask, asked for
SB 1234 (2003)
Cite the ORS when a bill was two sessions ago.
Since ____, Although _____, If ________
Here comes a compound sentence. Make two.
Specific, specifically
Leave it out
Submission is required by
Submit by, send by, file, mail, fax, must receive by
Submittal
Name the thing to be turned in.
That
Drop that where it adds no meaning.
That involve the use of, utilize, make use of
That use, use
Usually, typically, normally
Most often, often
Was going, running, saying, ___ing
Went, ran, said, blanked
Which
Replace with that in almost every case.
You, your (when writing in second person)
Don’t overuse. Let them be implied at times.
 

Notes for skeptics only
You may be thinking 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 makes 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)) "Every act, and joint resolution shall be plainly worded, avoiding as far as practicable the use of technical terms" (Or Const Article IV, Section 21). There are more. Several agencies have specific grade level requirements imposed on them by law.
 
What does it really mean to write to a 10th grade level? It means someone with tenth grade reading skills should be able to read what we write. But, it 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.
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?

Microsoft Word Mechanics
Automatic grammar checkers take time to run. They also give bad advice when they miss the context. Still, you need to run the grammar checker to get Microsoft Word's readability statistics. And, it can help you with your own problem areas. So, take a moment to customize your checker. Make it check spelling, readability, and only the grammar you really want it to check.
 
First, click on Tools, Options, Spelling and Grammar. Under Grammar, turn off Check grammar as you type. Turn on Check readability statistics. Go into Settings and click each grammar rule you wish to turn off. Scroll down to get them all. Leave the ones you turned on that you want to use. This works for Microsoft Word 97. Other versions are similar. Trouble? Check the Help function or ask a human for advice.
 
Now, to check a document just click on Tools, Spelling and Grammar. It will check spelling, any grammar you chose, and quickly give you readability results. To check part of a document, highlight the part you want checked before you click on Tools, Spelling and Grammar.

Other Notes
See the Readability FAQ.
 
There are many useful books 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.
 
Your ideas to improve this guide are welcome. Just send them to Raelynn Henson.
 
The readability for this guide is fifth grade level, reading ease of 75, and three percent passive sentences.


Resources
Guide to Better Writing (expanded articles on the top three rules of writing):