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Gary B. Larson

Plain Language

Your Reader and Purpose


Clear, Effective Paragraphs

Clear, Simple Sentences

Suitable Words

Enticing Design

Testing for Clarity

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Garbl's Plain Language Writing Guide


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Writing clear, effective paragraphs

Limit each paragraph to one topic unless you are linking related points. Complicated information, or a discussion of several topics, usually needs to be broken into separate paragraphs to be easily understood. Try to introduce the topic of each paragraph in the first sentence.

For all documents, especially web pages, write your text so readers can scan it easily. Break up long sections of text so readers can skim it for the main points and the general direction of the section.

Keep paragraphs to no more than four or five sentences, and limit most paragraphs to no more than seven printed lines. A one-sentence paragraph is OK if you need to separate a single idea, fact, statement or quotation from information in another paragraph. Use transitional words and phrases like as a result, however, and first, ... second, ...  to guide your readers from paragraph to paragraph and sentence to sentence.

Use headings and subheads to separate paragraphs and sections covering differing topics. Another way to break up blocks of information and draw the readers' attention to important elements is to use a question-and-answer format. That will help your readers find information that is important to them.

Avoid using cross-references to essential information on another page, section or chapter of a document; at the beginning, end or appendix of a document; or in another document. Especially when telling a story or giving instructions that must be read in sequence, sending readers to another place in the document can be frustrating and confusing. And they might not do it. Instead, try one of these methods to provide other details:

  • putting it in a follow-up sentence or paragraph
  • putting the follow-up sentence or paragraph in parentheses
  • placing it as a footnote at the bottom of the page
  • putting it in a box or sidebar article on the same page
  • using one of the formatting methods below.

That advice on cross-references does not apply to hyperlinks on web pages or to nonessential background information and bibliographic details.

Think about other formats than paragraphs to provide complex information. Use charts, tables and graphs to organize and compare related information: choices, disadvantages, benefits, dates, tasks, responsibilities, locations, percentages and so on. Those formats also cut out repetitious descriptive words. Also remember the phrase, "A picture is worth a thousand words" - and decide if an illustration, diagram or photo could supplement or even replace text. These graphic elements should be next to or close to the related text. See charts, tables in Garbl's Editorial Style Manual for more advice.

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Use lists correctly

You can also break up complicated text or make parallel points clear and easy to remember by using indented, vertical lists. A bullet or a number goes before each item in the list.

Here are some guidelines for lists:

  • Use complete sentences to introduce lists (like shown for this list).
  • Put words and ideas common to all items in the lead-in, introductory sentence.
  • Choose list items that form a logical group.
  • Present only one idea in each item.
  • Use numbers instead of bullets only when you are describing step-by-step procedures.
  • Use consistent punctuation and capitalization in list items.

Also, avoid using too many sets of bulleted lists close together.

See lists in the Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual for more advice.

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