We’ve been working on writing official election notices and letters in plain language. Things like voter registration forms and letters sent to voters explaining election processes. This job isn’t made any easier when there is mandatory text from the election code or other laws written in dense legal language.
A few broad guidelines can make sure that everyone gets the information they need, and can fill in the form or respond to the notice correctly. They can also help you create friendly tone that invites people to vote, even as you explain the details.
Start by making sure each word adds meaning. Look for extra words that add noise without adding clarity. Those extra words do more than just make the text longer. They often make the sentences more complicated, making them harder to read.
Both people who are rushing through the text and those who don’t read well understand information better in short, active, positively written sentences.
For example, why not say:
..means that you can be registered to vote.
..means that you have the opportunity to easily be registered to vote.
A crowded page just looks harder, and can discourage people from even reading it. One of the benefits of making every word count is that when there is less text, you can add white space so each paragraph stands out.
Shorter paragraphs also help break the information into clear chunks. When people get lost in a long paragraph, they often skip to the next one, missing important details buried at the end of the paragraph.
One way to make a long list of legal conditions or declarations easier to read is to break the paragraph into bullets.
“WARNING: If you sign this statement even though you know it is untrue, you can be convicted and fined up to $10,000 and/or jailed for up to five years. Your signature below is an affirmation that you meet these requirements under penalty of perjury unless you refuse to register to vote.”
I declare that the information on this application is true.
⋅ I understand that I can be convicted and fined up to $10,000 or jailed for up to 5 years.
⋅ I meet the requirements to vote, under penalty of perjury.
Many official letters have information for people in different situations. Help voters find the details that apply to them. Make each one it’s own paragraph so it is easy to see all the options at a glance. Start the paragraph by identifying the condition or the people the audience applies to, so others can skip over it.
For example, instead of:
This state has an Address Confidentiality Program for individuals who have demonstrated personal safety concerns. If you have concerns about your personal safety, you can …
start with the problem:
If you have personal safety concerns about your residence address becoming a public record…
When there are several different possibilities, it’s easier to scan the list when they all start with “if.”
If you choose not to register to vote…
If you do register to voter…
If you wish to register in private…
If you would like help…
For more tips for writing instructions and forms, see these Field Guides: