Writing plain English - Vic Gov digital guide

The best way to reach the widest audience of this website is to write in plain English.

We encourage you to use the Hemingway website to check your sentence length, passive voice and choice of words. This will help make your writing much clearer and point out areas for improvements.

However, if you have sentences that are 20 words or less and have minimal use of passive voice, you may still reach a high readability score on the more commonly used Flesch-Kincaid scale. This is because it also measures the number of syllables.

We understand that sometimes getting to the benchmark will be an issue due to the way plain English is measured. Our main priority is that your content makes sense for your users.

How to check for plain English according to government standards

If you meet the following you are showing you've made your best effort to create plain English content:

Average sentence length of 20 words or less

Check in Microsoft Word by following the instructions for checking readability levels.

Other techniques include:

  • if you have more than 1 'and' in your sentence you can split it into 2 separate sentences
  • if you have lots of commas in your sentence create a bulleted list so it's easier to scan the content

Less than 10% passive language

You have a passive sentence if you can add ' monkeys' to the end of your sentence and it still makes sense. For example, A decision has been made to close your monkeys. You can also check in Microsoft Word by following the instructions for checking readability levels. Hemingway picks up passive language too.

Tips to fix are:

  • use we and us instead of he, she, it and they
  • structure your sentence as subject-verb-object. This means start with who did the action. For example 'The committee (subject) campaigned (verb) to lower diabetes (object)'

No words used from the 'banned word list'

You can do a manual check for banned words or put your content in the CMS to run an automated check via Monsido. We have included all the 'banned words' for the Australian Government in our Monsido report (in the policies section). Access to Monsido is available for all Single Digital Presence users.

Also try to choose plain English words and terms and words we shouldn't be using because they aren't inclusive. We're adding words to Monsido over time where there is a preferred, simpler alternative.

You're using words that are searched for in Google

If people are searching for your words it means people are using them in real life and your content will be discoverable. Use Google Trends to check. If nothing comes up there check the bottom of the Google search results page for Searches related to once you've typed in what you think people are looking for.

If people are looking for the meaning of your word that means it is not understood and you must change it. For example, What is probity? or Probity definition. Look at a dictionary or synonym definition and find something that makes sense.

When is it okay to break the rules?

Examples of content that may not meet plain English benchmarks include:

  • quotes that are interesting and have emotional value but don't follow 'the rules'
  • historical content where past tense is used because it's talking about the past
  • names (proper nouns) and official language used have multiple syllables and can't be changed. For example, multicultural
  • where the common use is a more complex word as shown through Google or other research. For example 'ancestral remains' instead of 'old bones'

Don't use your subject matter as an excuse though. Most government content is published because we want everyone to understand it. Keep that as your guiding principle and provide evidence that you've made your best attempt to achieve it.

Are there any content types that are exempt?

We will work with you so that the intent of your content is not changed, it is simply made easier to read and understand.

This includes:

  • open letters
  • information sheets, toolkits and guidance related to Acts
  • Whole of Victorian Government standards

Exceptions are:

  • legislation, including standing and ministerial directions
  • historical information which needs to be provided but is no longer used for anything other than a record e.g. royal commissions, annual reports

What's the process if you have concerns you can't meet the standards?

You should raise concerns early if you feel your content cannot meet standards. You will receive written notice if your content does not meet standard.

The following are not reasons for an exemption:

  • lack of organisation
  • tight timelines
  • not thinking about user and digital needs
  • it's already approved

If these concerns cannot be resolved through discussions at the project level the Executive Director of Digital and the relevant director will discuss. There is a final escalation point at deputy secretary level if necessary.

Reviewed 24 February 2020

Vic Gov digital guide

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