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Global & Public Health

Federal Plain Language Guidelines

Think About Your Audience

One of the most popular plain language myths is that you have to "dumb down" your content so that everyone everywhere can read it. That's not true. The first rule of plain language is: write for your audience. Use language your audience knows and feels comfortable with. Take your audience's current level of knowledge into account. Don't write for an 8th grade class if your audience is composed of PhD candidates, small business owners, working parents or immigrants. Only write for 8th graders if your audience is, in fact, an 8th grade class.

Make sure you know who your audience is – don't guess or assume.

Identify and write for your audience

You have to grab your audience's attention if you want to get your ideas across. Let's face it, people want to know just what applies to them. The best way to grab and hold someone's attention is to figure out who they are and what they want to know. Put yourself in their shoes; it will give you a new perspective. (Read Identify your users and their top tasks for more information.)

Tell your audience why the material is important to them. Say, "If you want a research grant, here's what you have to do." Or, "If you want to mine federal coal, here's what you should know." Or, "If you are planning a trip to Rwanda, read this first."

Identifying your audience will do more than ensure that you write clearly. It will also help you focus on the audience's needs. Start out by thinking about what your audience knows about the situation now. Then, think about how to guide them from their current knowledge to what you need them to know. To help you do this, try answering the following questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What does my audience already know about the subject?
  • What does my audience need to know?
  • What questions will my audience have?
  • What's the best outcome for my agency? What do I need to say to get this outcome?
  • What's the best outcome for our audience? What do I need to say to get this outcome?


  • Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 93-96.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 9.


Organization is key. Start by stating the document's purpose and its bottom line. Eliminate filler and unnecessary content. Put the most important information at the beginning and include background information (when necessary) toward the end.

Organize to meet your Readers' Needs

Write Your Document

With a relatively small amount of effort and in a relatively short amount of time, you can significantly improve traditionally–written material.


Words matter. They are the most basic building blocks of written and spoken communication. Choose your words carefully – be precise and concise.

  • Verbs
    • Verbs tell your audience what to do. Make sure they know who does what
  • Sentences
    • Choose your words carefully. Start with your main idea – don't start with an exception. Word order does matter, so place your words carefully. Keep it short; it's not a crime to use lots of periods.
  • Paragraphs
    • Write short paragraphs and include only one topic in each paragraph.
  • Write for the Web
    • This section refers to the audience as users since that is a more common term in the web community. To effectively communicate with your web users, you must use plain-language techniques to write web content. This section will explain the differences between print and web writing and how to create sites that work for your users.
  • Test
    • Testing your documents should be an integral part of your plain-language planning and writing process, not something you do after the fact to see if your document (or your website) is a success. It�s especially important if you�re writing to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. The information gained in testing can save time in answering questions about your document later. Although we refer to "documents" in this section, use these same techniques to test individual web pages or complete websites. In fact, we recommend testing websites, documents, brochures, applications, mobile websites, videos, social media, and public affairs messages.

Health Literacy Definition

Clear Communication Index

Everyday Words for Public Health Communication

What is this document?
This document lists frequently used terms in public health materials and their common, everyday alternatives in plain language sentences. Original sentence examples come from materials on Some words and phrases may have multiple meanings, so check the context of use before you substitute. Remember, it might not be enough to delete jargon and substitute an everyday word in materialsfor the nonexpert public. You may have to rewrite the entire sentence or sentences and use multipletechniques. As a rule, you help readers when you:
•Write short sentences.
              •Use active voice.
              •Use everyday words and pronouns (when appropriate).
Who should use this document?
Federal employees and contractors writing for the nonexpert public: The Plain Writing Act says that federal agencies must use plain language in public communication. Anyone writing for an audience that will benefit from jargon-free language: Consider the intended audience, and use the language that will make the most sense to them. When you do need to reach a broad, public audience without specialized knowledge about a topic, everyday words are the mostappropriate language to help the most people understand the information.
Does this document include all medical and public health jargon?
No, this document includes many but not all common public health terms used in materials on CDCgov. For example, the document doesn’t include specialized disease, health condition, anatomy, or physiology terms. We will periodically add relevant, widely-used terms and examples.
Help improve this document with audience testing
If you do audience testing of these terms or other public health or medical words, please send your results to the CDC Office of the Associate Director for Communication Science health literacy team at We want to use the results to update and share the list with others so they can learn which terms work better for different audiences.