As a writer of proposed rules, your words make a difference.1 Readers understand the details and intent of rules through these documents and respond accordingly. If your writing is easy for the public to understand, commenters are better equipped to address pivotal issues and provide useful feedback.
Why make readability a priority when writing proposed rules?
Documents announcing or introducing proposed rules should help the authoring agency vet proposed regulations with the public. However, if the writing is vague, the public will have a hard time understanding the regulation and discussion surrounding it. In such cases, potential commenters will struggle to address the essential issues in comments or choose not to comment at all. Further, if they misunderstand the purpose of the proposed regulations, they may have unwarranted concerns, which the agency would then have to address.
Though some people believe using common words makes writing unsophisticated, precise, clear language actually improves your ability to communicate complex and nuanced concepts. Readability facilitates readers’ review of the entire document and helps them find the most important paragraphs and subsections for their needs. It also helps agencies highlight the areas they most want feedback on. In fact, clear and straightforward communications support effective rulemaking.
Here are several tips for fine-tuning your language and setting the rulemaking process on the right course for your agency and the public.
Take Advantage of Active Voice.
Agencies have traditionally drafted regulatory language in passive voice to maintain a detached, neutral tone, but it also makes sentences harder to read. Active voice lowers the cognitive load for readers and clearly identifies who is required to take what actions. Active voice clarifies the transactions, interactions, and expected behaviors a regulation prescribes so the public has an easier time digesting its meaning.
In the following example, the active version identifies who conducted the rulemaking, making the sentence clearer and more direct:
Passive voice: “A negotiated rulemaking was conducted to develop ACAA regulations.”
Active voice: “The Department conducted a negotiated rulemaking to develop ACAA regulations.”
Keep Sentences Relatively Short.
The longer the sentence, the harder a reader has to work. For this reason, it’s best to keep your phrases reined in. Keep your average sentence to about 15-20 words. Your sentence length will vary, but look for redundant words you can remove.
For example, instead of “on an annual basis,” try “annually” or “yearly.” Common adjectives and adverbs, such as “clearly” or “very,” convey little meaning while cluttering your work. Change double negatives such as “not insignificant” to clearer alternatives such as “significant.” Shorten wordy phrases—for example, replace “has the capability to” with “can.”
The following request for comments contains longer sentences and passive voice, which readers may have a hard time following:
“Interested parties are invited to participate in this proposed rulemaking by submitting such written data, views, or arguments as they may desire. Comments providing the factual basis behind supporting the views and suggestions presented are particularly helpful in developing reasoned regulatory decisions on the proposal.”2
A more active option with shorter sentences helps readers understand and respond with the most useful comments:
“We invite you to help us refine this proposed rulemaking. Please submit your views with written data or factual arguments. Concrete details help us better understand the problem we seek to solve, improve our proposed solution, and develop alternative solutions. If you agree with our proposal, explain why you agree. If you disagree with it, explain why you disagree. Please provide data, when possible.”
Use Sentence Structure to Improve Clarity.
Regulations deal with complicated issues, so it’s not always easy to communicate in short sentences. However, you can structure long sentences in ways that help readers. For instance, use parallel structure when you need to string several phases together. Also, use the Oxford, or serial, comma to prevent ambiguity.
A long sentence without parallel structure:
The committee agreed that property owners must provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, including entrance ramps, installing elevators to the basement and showers that are accessible.
A clearer example with parallel structure and the Oxford comma:
The committee agreed that property owners must provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, including entrance ramps, accessible showers, and full elevator service.
Sentences with center-embedded clauses are especially hard to understand. These constructions have extra information inside them, which distracts from the main point.
A center-embedded sentence:
In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company (all such payments and benefits, including the payments and benefits under Section 3(a), being hereinafter referred to as the ‘Total Payments’), would be subject to excise tax, then the cash severance payments shall be reduced.3
A simpler construction:
In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company would be subject to excise tax, then the cash severance payments shall be reduced. All payments and benefits by the Company shall hereinafter be referred to as the ‘Total Payments.’ Total Payments include the payments and benefits under Section 3(a).
Create Headings That Guide the Reader.
Both the table of contents and section headings operate as a map that highlights the main point of each section and helps readers find the information they’re looking for. Where possible, write specific headings that leave no doubt about the text that follows.
Specific, informational headings:
“Where you may use an off-highway vehicle”
“What does this regulation cover?”
When organizing the document, you can also use the table of contents as a writing aid to make sure you’ve grouped related topics together and the discussion flows in a logical order.
Think Like a Reader.
There are no absolute dos and don’ts in writing, but the guidelines above will help you avoid common pitfalls and communicate more effectively. It’s most important to write with the reader in mind and to trust your instincts. By doing so, you’ll make readers’ lives easier and receive better feedback from commenters.