9 out of 10 documents fail this essential element of plain language

Anne-Marie Chisnall | May 31, 2017

Most people can name a few of the elements that make a document unclear. Often they’ll pick jargon and long sentences.

But what’s the element that documents most often fall short on? The one that ensures your reader knows why they’re reading and what action they need to take?

Have you thought carefully about the purpose of your document?

It’s no coincidence that the first element of the Write ™ Plain Language Standard is:

The purpose of the document is clear at the start

When your document has a clear purpose, your reader isn’t left wondering ‘why?’

Image, Sign post.

A clear purpose points your reader in the right direction. Image by Jens Johnsson / CC0

Working out the true purpose of your document takes careful thought and planning. We often say that the most important part of your writing task takes place before you start writing most of the content.

How do you work out the purpose of your document?

You need a clear brief and a well-structured outline of your content. These things don’t appear magically. Thinking and planning take a large percentage of the time you’ll spend on producing your content — sometimes 50 percent or more.

Ask yourself why you’re writing — and think about some of the following questions.

How do you convey the purpose early in your document?

A clear title and subtitle set the reader up to know your purpose early on. But don’t stop there.

Include a section at the beginning of your document that states its purpose. You can use a heading as obvious as ‘Purpose of this document’, or a bit more descriptive as in ‘Report on the findings of our investigation into…’

When you get into the body of the purpose statement, use strong verbs:

Why focus on purpose?

A clear purpose makes a measurable difference to the clarity of your document because it determines so much about the rest of your content. Once you know the purpose, you can target and trim your information. You can structure with the purpose in mind, and write headings that reflect the main messages of your content.

And you’ll move your documents into the top 10 percent.

Need help finding your purpose?

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Read more about planning a document

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