Writing to be heard—and understood—on the Web

The Web could force the federal government to finally shed its legacy of lousy writing

Pity the fishing boat owner who picks up a quick reference card from the National Marine Fisheries Service and comes across this indigestible bowl of alphabet soup:

“After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September 1997. CA/OR DGN vessel operators are required to attend Skipper Education Workshops at annual intervals thereafter, unless that requirement is waived by NMFS. NMFS will provide sufficient advance notice to vessel operators by mail prior to convening workshops.”

Perhaps most boat owners would take the time to make sense of it, if only because that is par for the course for any information coming out of government.

But what if that same text were on the agency’s Web site? Experts say the dynamics would change considerably because although people might slog through government-speak in print, they are significantly less patient when they are reading online.


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Instead, what an online reader wants to see is something like this:

“After notification from NMFS, vessel operators must attend a skipper education workshop before commencing fishing each fishing season.”

Notice that the editor has stripped out unnecessary words and translated technical jargon into terms the intended audience can understand. That’s the epitome of what is known as plain language, a writing movement that has been around for years but is gaining momentum lately thanks to the Web.

“People do not stay very long on confusing Web sites,” said Annetta Cheek, a retired federal employee who is now a leading plain-language advocate in the federal community. “When they are hit with a wall of words, which describes a lot of government Web sites, they are out of there.”

For decades, federal agencies have issued reams of regulations, pamphlets and other paper documents written in prose that often borders on the unreadable. But agencies were not held accountable because readers had no way to complain.

Not so online, where Web metrics provide agencies with a good measure of what users are reading, for better or worse.

And the stakes are getting higher because President Barack Obama has made government transparency a defining policy of his administration. Under the Open Government Initiative and similar efforts, agencies are under increasing pressure to connect with the public online and offer people more information, services and interactive forums.

Agencies’ success depends in part on the clarity of the content they provide.

It might help to think of a Web site as a conversation between an agency and its audience, but only the audience can initiate it. If people don’t make the move by visiting the site, the conversation will never happen.

“In the Web world, your product does not exist until someone comes to it,” said Ginny Redish, a consultant and author of the book “Letting Go of Words: Writing Web Content that Works.”

The good news is that good writing is not a lost art, just a neglected one. Here are some tips from a panel of experts on how to improve the quality of the writing on your agency’s site.

1. Write for the readers, not the experts.

Everything begins with the reader.

Some federal officials have a difficult time grasping that fundamental concept. The way they see it, their task is to serve up the best data and analysis available from the government’s best subject-matter experts.

The problem is that subject-matter experts typically prefer to write for other experts in their particular jargon and often turgid prose. Unfortunately, that does not deter some Web managers from posting such documents on their agencies’ Web sites unaltered, leaving us amateurs to fend for ourselves.

Content providers need to get to know their readers. In particular, they must learn to think like readers. That sounds daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.

When Candi Harrison was the Web manager at the Housing and Urban Development Department, she made a point of looking for opportunities to get in front of readers. For example, she would set up a small tech center during HUD industry meetings and invite attendees to spend time surfing the agency’s site. She leaped at any such chance to listen to her customers.

“If you are a government Web manager and you are there to serve the public, it is job No. 1: You have to listen — to what they say and how they say it,” said Harrison, who managed the HUD Web site for 10 years before retiring in 2005. She now writes a blog about all things related to Web content.

That audience-oriented approach is at the heart of the plain-language discipline. Advocates emphasize the need for simple and direct writing, and they favor clarity over flourish. But the vocabulary varies depending on the expertise of the intended readers.

Subject-matter experts often bristle at this approach, accusing editors of dumbing down their text. But if well executed, plain language can do the opposite, advocates say, because the editing process often reveals weaknesses in an argument that had been obscured by bad writing.

Plain-language advocates also argue that good writing is a better use of everyone’s time. If a Web page is dense and confusing, people won’t read it. “Why go through all the effort to write something that people are not going to read or won’t understand if they do read it?” Redish asked.

2. Focus on tasks, not content.

The audience’s interests should also dictate how Web content is packaged. Too often, agencies organize their sites based on who provides the information rather than why someone would want to read it.

Web experts advise agencies to use a task-oriented design and organize information and services around the common goals that bring users to the site.

“That is what the Web is all about,” Redish said. “It’s about people outside the agency having a need to do something, a goal.”

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have seen that approach pay off in measurable ways.

The agency is organized around centers with particular areas of expertise, such as the environment, infectious diseases and vaccine safety. When the Web site reflected that structure, users had a difficult time finding the information they wanted, particularly if their interests cut across different centers, said Karen Morrione, content team lead for CDC’s Web site.

CDC redesigned its site in 2006 to focus on eight main topic areas, such as diseases and conditions, emergency preparedness and response, and travelers' health. At the same time, the Web team focused on making the content as readable as possible without compromising accuracy.

Users noticed the difference. From 2005 to 2007, CDC’s annual score on the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s survey of government Web sites climbed seven points, from 74 to 81. CDC’s 2009 score dipped to 79, but it was still well above the federal government’s aggregate score of 68.7.

The approach “not only satisfies the scientists at CDC but makes information more accessible to consumers,” Morrione said.

3. Build tiers of information.

None of this means that technical information has no home on federal Web sites. It’s all just a matter of packaging and navigation.

Think of a Web site as a hotel, said Leslie O’Flahavan, co-founder and partner at E-Write, which provides writing instruction and consulting services to agencies.

The home page is a lobby, where most people will arrive. The page should be light on content but heavy on navigation, and it should help visitors figure out where they want to go next. The main lobby leads to smaller lobbies, which in turn lead to specific rooms where visitors finally sit down to read.

Some visitors will find what they want in the smaller lobbies — a topic page, for example — but others are willing to go further in search of more information.

The beauty of the Web lies in the hypertext link, which enables users to indicate their interest in a given topic. People who don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty details — the province of subject-matter experts — can simply ignore the links.

The conventional wisdom that readers want less text online is true only to a degree.

“They want short text when making a decision about what to read,” O’Flahavan said. “But they want to be able to evoke depth, and they do that by clicking on links.”

In some cases, agencies might consider building tiers of information on a page. For example, CDC’s Web team has adopted the inverted pyramid approach to writing that has been the hallmark of journalism for many years.

At the top of a page, they present the most salient points in reader-friendly form, which includes writing catchy headlines and short synopses, adding visuals where possible, and providing plenty of white space. People who want to dig deeper can keep scrolling.

“To me, this is what you should be trying to do with your consumer-facing material,” Morrione said.

4. Teach the Web manager to say no.

Your Web manager is your last line of defense against bad writing.

Ideally, everyone responsible for creating and posting content should be trained in the basics of good communication. But that’s not likely to be the case at most agencies, and even if it is, everyone has an off day.

The only way to ensure consistent quality is to give Web managers the authority to speak truth to power and refuse to post information that does not meet their standard of clear, compelling content.

Most Web managers have such standards. What they lack is authority. “Most of them get it,” Harrison said. “But when their boss hands them something, they are afraid to edit it.”

The Office of Personnel Management has not done much to help. Although federal Web sites have been around since 1995, OPM has yet to create a formal job classification for Web managers and editors.

“As a specialty, it is not recognized as it should be,” Cheek said. “In occupation codes, writers are in the same category as jugglers. Therefore, it is not an occupation that people listen to.”

But Web managers can help their cause by creating opportunities to educate higher-level executives.

One of the best opportunities is usability testing, in which people from outside the organization are brought in to spend time on the Web site, searching for specific information or trying a service. Confusing content or navigation quickly becomes apparent.

At the Federal Aviation Administration, the Web team showed managers a videotape of the testing process. “When they saw how much trouble people had with the Web [site], that made a big impression on them,” Cheek said.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jun 17, 2010 Alistair McAlpine Wellington, NZ

'Ordinary people' are now demanding ordinary lawyers learn the art of effective, plain language communication. Perhaps they could ask a few ordinary people how they manage it. I suggest you read Plain Language for Lawyers by Michèle M. Asprey http://bit.ly/bX6hMX

Tue, Mar 9, 2010

It isn't just government- private industry also does poorly on their web sites, and web pages linked to emails they send to their customers. I'm currently fighting with my ISP (One of the major companies with a 3-letter name) about migration to an outsourced server farm. The instructions in the email, the instructions in the linked web pages, and the instructions from the 3 overlapping outsourced help desks, all disagree with each other. Left Hand, meet Right Foot, etc. I'm irritated enough to strongly consider dumping them and going elsewhere.

Mon, Mar 8, 2010 C. Turner Fairfax, VA

Frequently government communications, especially communications about laws, are referred to lawyers. While the result is gibberish to ordinary people, their requirement is to ensure that what is said cannot be misinterpreted or twisted (in a court of law). The example given looks like it was an attempt to accurately quote from a ruling - even if the author was not a lawyer, (s)he would be afraid to mis-quote the rule.

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