What federal web customers want most

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

According to a national adult literacy study, the average American reads at the seventh grade level. A 2003 study of state and federal websites found that two-thirds of all sites have language consistent with a 12th grade reading level.

Clearly, there is a disconnect.

And the problem, Candi Harrison, founder of the Government Web Managers Forum, told Federal News Radio, is yours, not your internet-using customer’s.

“If I as a citizen don’t understand what you’ve told me or can’t read that form that you’ve written, then you aren’t serving me effectively.”

Harrison, a former web manager at HUD, said you’ll know plain writing at a glance. “You know it when you see it if you can understand it the first time you read it and act on it, and act correctly on it, and that’s a biggie.”

Because, Harrison said, “one of the things you don’t want to have happen is somebody to read something and think they understand it and then go act on it, and then it turns out they acted wrong because you didn’t write it properly so that they would understand it correctly.”

The problem, Harrison told the Federal Drive, is that we’re trained to impress our school teachers and, later, our bosses, forgetting that we should be writing for “the people who are really going to read these things, and in the case of the web, that’s the public. That’s general citizens.”

Harrison said every federal employee writing for the web should know how users think, what words users use, what questions they might ask, “and that’s how you write plainly.”

“Better writing, better service and that’s what plain language is all about.”

For more information about “Plain Writing/Plain Language for Government Communicators”, Harrison passed along these links:

General Resources


  • Tutorial: “How to Use Plain Language on a Government Website” – Webcontent.gov
  • Web Manager University offers writing courses every semester (fall semester will be announced soon) –usa.gov
  • Free ½ day training classes and other free online training – plainlanguage.gov

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