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Plain language works on the Web (legal Web sites).

The approach that works

Plain language advocates can find support in recent studies by staff at Sun Microsystems on how people read on the Web.

The good news is you can continue practicing your plain language techniques when you've been asked to write for a web site. Do audience research to learn potential readers' needs, abilities, interests, and tolerances, then write to them in a personal, direct and conversational style.

Remember these basics:

* Write short sentences with simple structures about single ideas.

* Use everyday, familiar words.

* Make paragraphs short and focused on single topics.

* Speak directly to the reader using "you".

* Use active verbs instead of passive voice construction.

* Cut out unnecessary words but not necessary facts.

People reading on the Web have the same habits as those who use paper documents: they skim for useful information, read only what interests them, expect clear expression of factual information, and don't bother with anything that looks like it demands heavy concentration and diligent processing to be useful.

The Sun studies found that people skim Web pages rather than read word for word. They look for attention-grabbing words or features. Making information skimmable means calling attention to the most significant information using these techniques:

* Include tables of contents and short section summaries.

* Provide a brief but informative introduction.

* Highlight key words or phrases using bold or colour text.

* Use topic sentences to begin paragraphs.

* Write meaningful, not clever or humorous or metaphoric, headings.

* Use lots of bulleted or numbered lists of fewer than nine items.

Organize material efficiently. Web readers are under emotional and time constraints -- with a finger resting on the mouse -- they can abandon your writing immediately if they don't find information quickly. Write Web articles in the journalist's "inverted pyramid" style. The first paragraph should provide a summary or outline of your article, or statement of your conclusions, so the reader can decide whether to read on. Readers don't like the hard-sell so don't use promotional language or they'll skip your article.

Readers need information to be concise -- so don't include any more detail than you must. Provide detail or related information in separate articles. People read 25% slower when on the Web than they do on paper. If they have to mentally discard extraneous words, and unnecessary data to get to what they want, they will become frustrated and may abandon the effort. Material for the Web needs to be reduced by half from what would initially be written for paper.

You can tighten the language as you make it more objective and reliable from the readers' perspective: Remove adjectives and adverbs that just inflate - those like great, very, newest, extremely. Readers want facts -- they hate having to filter out hyperbole. Eliminate buzz words and jargon, too -- not just from your topic area but also Web words that have become trite: click, surf, hot, links, next.

With these guidelines, you can produce concise, readable, and objective information and more than double the usability of your information. Sun's Jakob Nielsen found that making these changes significantly improved usefulness on four performance measures:

* reduced time needed to complete tasks,

* fewer errors in completing tasks,

* greater recognition and recall, and

* increased ease with and awareness of structure.

When editors followed these guidelines in refining written material for the Web, readers' subjective satisfaction improved 37% on four aspects: quality of content and language (accurate, useful, helpful, well written), ease of use, likability (interesting, engaging, not boring), affect on users (not tiring, not confusing, not frustrating).

When you write for the Web, use your best plain language behaviour. Good writing is still good in cyberspace.

More detail on the study is provided at both the Sun Miscrosystem site at www.sun.com/980713/webwriting/ and author Jakob Nielsen's, web site on usability at www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/writing.html

The Numbers

Information prepared according to plain language writing and design guidelines is more usable:

* Task Time: 180% faster

* User Errors: 809% fewer

* Memory: 100% more

* Subjective Satisfaction: 37% higher

* Overall usability: 159% better

Before and after examples

Original text:

Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).

124% improvement from making it concise, skimmable, and objective:

In 1996, six of the most-visited places in Nebraska were:

* Fort Robinson State Park

* Scotts Bluff National Monument

* Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum

* Carhenge

* Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer

* Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park

Original text:

Facilities management also portend high growth. To be sure, microprocessors can be found today in electronic thermostats, intercom systems, automatic sprinkler systems, stand-alone light timers and alarm systems that themselves are linked to a central monitoring station. But picture a home network that ties all these things - and more - together into a coordinated facilities and environmental control system. ...

159% improvement:

Facilities management also will rely on new devices. Electronic thermostats, intercom systems, automatic sprinkler systems and alarm systems all will be tied into a coordinated control system linked to a central monitoring system.

Cheryl Stephens is President of Plain Language Partners Ltd. consultants to the legal community, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Legal Resource Centre of Alberta Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stephens, Cheryl
Publication:LawNow
Date:Feb 1, 1999
Words:903
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