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Make it easy to follow

People read government websites and documents to get answers. They want to know how to do something or what happens if they don’t do something—and they want to gain this knowledge quickly. Organize your writing so it’s easy to follow along.

Think through the questions your users likely have and then organize the material in a logical order.

For regulations and other complex documents, create a comprehensive table of contents. Your table of contents should be a reliable roadmap that users can follow to quickly find what they need.

Chronological order

Regulations frequently address processes. Chronological order is best for process information:

  1. You fill out an application to get a benefit.
  2. You submit the application.
  3. The agency reviews the application.
  4. The agency makes a decision on the application.

Present the steps chronologically, in the order your user and your agency will follow them. The table of contents below is organized in a logical sequence for a grant program.

Example

Part 791: Gifted and Talented Students

Subpart A: How the Grant Program Works

791.1 What is the Gifted and Talented Students Education Program?
791.2 Am I eligible for a grant?
791.3 What activities are appropriate for grant funding?

Subpart B: How to Apply for an Award

791.10 Where do I write to obtain a grant application?
791.11 What materials do I need to submit to be considered for a grant?
791.12 Where do I send my application?
791.13 When is my application due?

Subpart C: How the Secretary Makes an Award

791.20 How will the Secretary evaluate my application?
791.21 What selection criteria does the Secretary use?

Subpart D: Grantees’ Rights and Responsibilities

791.30 Under what conditions may I use my grant award?
791.31 What are my responsibilities for serving students and teachers in private schools?

General first, exceptions, conditions, and specialized information later

Another useful organizing principle is to put general information first, and specialized information or exceptions later. That way, the material that addresses most readers in most situations comes first. For some documents this will work well along with a chronological organization. In others, it may be the primary organizing principle.

Example

Part 725: Claims For Benefits Under The Federal Mine Safety And Health Act

General

725.1 What does this program cover?
725.2 What special terms do I need to know to understand this part?

Who is Covered

725.201 Who is entitled to benefits under this program?
725.202 How long can my benefits last?
725.203 Are my dependents entitled to benefits?
725.204 How long will their benefits last?
725.205 Am I still eligible if I am convicted of a felony?

How to Apply for Benefits

725.301 How do I file a claim?
725.302 Can other people give evidence on my behalf?
725.303 Are there any time limits for filing my claim?
725.304 Can I modify or withdraw my claim?

How to Appeal Agency Decisions

725.401 Can I appeal a decision if I don’t agree with it?
725.402 How do I file an appeal?
725.403 How long do I have to file an appeal?
725.404 What types of evidence must I submit?
725.405 What happens if I won’t get a medical examination?

Limit levels to three or fewer

Crafting documents with four, five, or even more levels makes it difficult for your audience to keep track of where they are in the process. You should address this problem in your initial structuring of the document.

Dividing your document into more pieces at the top levels should allow you to limit subdivisions below the major level to two. The Office of the Federal Register recommends that regulations contain no more than three levels, noting that more than three levels make regulations hard to read and use.

Sources

  • Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, p. 70 (C).
  • Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 3-5.
  • Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, §1-23.
  • Redish, Janice C., How to Write Regulations and Other Legal Documents in Clear English, 1991, American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, pp. 12-21.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 15.