This guidance is provided as a general starting point for anyone designing online content, or working on digital projects that involve designing new content or reworking old content.
Why we use plain language
Only 16% of New Zealand adults are considered to have high literacy levels. In addition people may:
- be unfamiliar with the subject matter and related jargon
- have poor computer skills.
How to write
Use simple words
Use simple words where you can. It makes:
- sentences easier to scan
- content more accessible.
Here are some lists of words that can usually be replaced by a simpler alternative:
Use active verbs
Active verbs makes your sentences shorter, clearer and more direct.
Active sentences are always clear about the person or thing who is responsible for ‘doing something’.
For example, ‘All government agencies signed the Charter’ rather than the Charter was signed by all government agencies’.
More guidance on: Symbols, currency and abbreviations
Use short sentences and paragraphs
A short, clear sentence:
- has about 15–20 words
- has 1 idea.
Keep paragraphs short with 1 subject in one paragraph.
You can also use bulleted lists.
More guidance on plain language writing: How we write for Govt.nz
Abbreviations and acronyms
Expand all abbreviations and acronyms when you use them for the first time on a page.
For example, ‘You need to contact the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA).
Words to avoid
- technical language
- government noun strings like ‘business capability initiative included an overview of its core service delivery framework’.
Abstract nouns (nominalisations)
Abstract nouns are nouns formed from verbs.
They often end in: -ion, -ment, -al, -age, -ing, -ance, -ant, -dom -ence, -ity, -ism.
Always try to use the verb rather than the abstract noun.
- ‘provide’ instead of ‘make provision for’
- ‘apply’ instead of ‘make an application to’
- ‘consider’ instead of ‘give due consideration to’.
Here’s a handy list of abstract nouns and alternatives you could use instead.
Nominalisations cheat sheet
Get rid of any words or phrases that are not essential to the meaning of the page.
Redundancy can include:
- redundant words — using multiple words to express the same idea
- redundant synonyms — using two or more words with the same meaning
- ‘weasel’ words — vague words, generalisations.
Readability testing tools
Use online tools that check the readability of your writing by scanning things like the length of sentences, grammar, and use of complex words:
- Readability Calculator at Online-Utility.org
- Readability Test Tool
- Measuring content improvement using the Flesch reading ease tool
Each tool operates slightly differently, and the results they give may vary slightly, but they should be similar.
Common indicators are:
- Flesch reading ease: A score of 65 or above is thought to be plain English. This isn’t set in stone though — sometimes specific terms can drag the reading ease down, so aim for a score of at least 60.
- Grade: Grade levels vary around the world. Use the grade as a guide and aim for a reading age level of 12.