There is no formula for the perfect document. There is no perfect document. There are, however, accepted principles of good writing. There are also many techniques certain to make any document unnecessarily long and confusing. PEI encourages writing that is clear, concise, and readily understood by the target audience. PEI has developed standards to help people and organizations draft documents in plain English. A document must meet these standards to be eligible for PEI’s “Plain English Certified” and “Plain English Certified Document” certification marks. As used in these standards, “person” may mean an entity such as a corporation.
Appropriate for PEI Review
1. The document must not be fiction, but rather a document the applicant uses or intends to use in business, education, government, law, medicine, research, science, or some similar endeavor.
2. The document must be in English.
3. The applicant must submit the document in good faith, as determined by PEI in its sole discretion. PEI will not review hate literature, pornography, documents that advocate criminal activity, or any other document that PEI determines is inappropriate for certification.
4. The applicant must submit the document in MS Word format in the format that the applicant uses or intends to use it. Do not shrink the font or delete graphics.
(Most of these standards are self-explanatory, but some include examples PEI hopes you will find helpful).
5. The document must clearly identify the person that authored or published the document.
6. The document must clearly identify the intended recipient(s) or audience unless that is readily apparent from the nature of the document.
7. The document must explain its purpose(s) in one of the first three substantive paragraphs unless the purpose is readily apparent from the nature of the document. For example, an advertisement need not state its purpose.
8. The document must be free of spelling errors, considering that some English-speaking countries spell the same words differently.
9. The document must be free of clear punctuation errors, considering that some punctuation choices are for the author. If the author makes a choice about a punctuation rule in a document, the author should be consistent throughout the document.
10. It must be free of clear grammatical errors, considering that there is not universal agreement on some grammar issues. If the author makes a choice about a grammar rule in a document, the author should be consistent throughout the document.
11. The document must employ a logical structure. Chronology is often a good way to accomplish this.
12. The document must be free from ambiguity.
13. The document should minimize passive voice. Instances of passive voice must not exceed 10%, as measured using Microsoft Word’s review function.
14. The average sentence length must not exceed 25 words, as measured using Microsoft Word’s review function.
15. The average number of sentences per paragraph must not exceed six, as measured using Microsoft Word’s review function.
16. The document must be as concise as is reasonably possible, considering the document’s purpose(s). If appropriate, refer to another part of the document or insert a link to another part of the document rather than repeat information contained elsewhere in the document.
17. The document must omit unnecessary words.
a. Avoid using superfluous words.
EXAMPLE: Use, “Because” rather than “Owing to the fact that.”
b. Avoid redundancy. This error is common in legal documents.
EXAMPLE: Write, “The contract is void” rather than “The contract is null, void, and of no effect.”
c. Avoid unnecessary use of “that” and “which.”
EXAMPLE: “The presentation Mr. Jones made to the Board was outstanding” is better than “The presentation that Mr. Jones made to the Board was outstanding.”
18. The document must be free of double negatives.
19. The document must avoid use of complex words or phrases when simpler ones will do.
20. If the document contains terms not readily understood by the target audience, it must define such terms. The document must define the unfamiliar word when it first appears or in a separate definitions section.
21. The document must minimize nominalization (turning verbs into nouns). Be alert for words ending in –ion.
EXAMPLE: Write, “Please consider this fact” rather than “Please take this fact into consideration.”
22. PEI encourages the use of personal pronouns where possible.
POOR: The client may direct any concerns about the client’s claim to the client’s local agent.
ACCEPTABLE: You may direct any concerns about your claim to your local agent.
23. Pronoun use must be consistent throughout the document.
24. The document must refer to people and organizations by name where appropriate. PEI encourages the use of acronyms and shorthand names when this will make the document more readable. The document should introduce these shortened designations within parenthesis immediately following their corresponding full names when they first appear.
EXAMPLE: The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI) is a 501(c)(3) trade association.
25. The document must contain sections and subsections when necessary to aid the reader, and contain informative headings for each section and subsection.
26. The document must use positive sentences rather than negative sentences.
EXAMPLE: Write, “Only the owner may register a vehicle.” Do not write, “Persons other than the owner may not register a vehicle.”
27. The subject, verb, and object in a sentence must be close together, toward the beginning of the sentence.
28. The document must employ parallel sentence structure. (This means the author presents any list or series of items using parallel parts of speech, such as nouns or verbs).
Incorrect: “If you want to attend the seminar, complete the application, mailing it to the company’s headquarters, and put your employee number on it.”
Correct: “If you want to attend the seminar, complete the application, mail it to the company’s headquarters, and put your employee number on it.”
29. The document must employ chronology when presenting facts or procedures.
30. The document must avoid sexist language.
a. Use gender neutral terms when possible.
Example: Use “firefighters” rather than “firemen.”
b. Use of the masculine pronoun in generalizations is acceptable. Use of “s/he” or “he or she” is also acceptable, but writers can often avoid them.
Example: Instead of “Each applicant believes he has strong qualifications,” write, “All applicants believe they have strong qualifications.”
31. The document must contain information the reader can use to contact the author or publisher of the document.
32. The document must employ legible fonts.
33. Any document that exceeds 20 pages must include a table of contents or index.
34. Each page must be numbered, except the first page.
35. If the document includes representational graphics, the document must inform readers of the scale.