TN 3 (08-09)

NL 00610.030 Writing Guidelines for Notices

Write in plain language using everyday words, short sentences, proper grammar, and active voice. In addition, a positive tone is important in all documents, but especially in letters and notices. Use the following principles to ensure that the reader can understand your notice.

A. Use consistent words

Use consistent terminology throughout the entire notice. Use the same words for the same purpose. Each paragraph should reflect the terminology of other paragraphs in the notice. Do not use different terms just for variety. Using consistent language ensures that the reader is not confused by conflicting or different terminology. When you change terminology, the reader may think you are changing topics. For example, use either “economic recovery payment” or “special stimulus payment,” but not both, in a notice. Use existing standardized language whenever possible to ensure consistency.

B. Use proper tone

Be sure to write using a tone that is courteous, personal, positive, and nonthreatening, and that conveys information in a conversational way. The tone of your notice projects your attitude toward the reader. When the tone of a notice is callous or harsh, it can distract the reader from understanding the content of the notice. In addition, the tone of your notice should convey its importance without alarming the reader. If the tone is inappropriate, recipients of notices often stop reading them and contact us. See the examples below.

Use

Instead of

Please remember…

Don’t forget…

Thank you…

C. Use positive wording

Sentences that use positive wording:

  • point out what the agency can do instead of what it cannot do;

  • open with the action, then add any needed apology or explanation;

  • are inviting and encourage the individual to continue reading; and

  • are easier to understand than sentences that are negative in tone.

Negative sentences can seem harsh or hostile and distract the reader from understanding the content of the notice.

See the examples below.

Use positive wording

Instead of

You must provide the information we requested to qualify for benefits.

If you fail to provide the information we requested, you will not qualify for benefits.

We increased your benefits because your workers’ compensation payments stopped.

We no longer reduce your benefits once your workers’ compensation payments have stopped.

We can start your benefits after you give us the information we requested.

I’m sorry, but we cannot start your benefits until you respond to our request for information.

D. Use active rather than passive voice

In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. In passive voice, the person or thing that is acted on is the subject.

Write in active voice unless there is a specific reason to use passive voice. Readers understand sentences in active voice more easily and quickly because active voice aligns with how we think and process information.

See the examples below.

Use active voice

Instead of passive voice

We used new rules.

New rules were used.

We reviewed your medical evidence.

Medical evidence was reviewed.

This table describes the changes that affect your benefits.

The following table is intended to assist you in understanding your benefits that are changing.

E. Avoid excess words

Omit needless and elaborate words. Unnecessary and complicated words needlessly increase the length of the notice and make it harder for the reader to follow.

See the examples below.

Use these words

Instead of these words

forms, is

constitutes

monthly

on a monthly basis

if

in the event that, should it appear that

under, in

as prescribed by

to, for

in order to, for the purpose of

F. Avoid or explain technical terms

Terms such as “support and maintenance” and “in accordance with laws and regulations” interfere with our efforts to communicate with the public. Replace technical terms with short, common words to get your points across. Where there is no plain language alternative, explain what the term means when you first use it. When technical terms that have a specific meaning within SSA are required (for example, “reconsideration”) provide a definition or explanation.

G. Avoid using language from laws or regulations

Explain any legal points in clear, simple language. Do not use legal citations or exact wording from the laws or regulations unless the letter is going to an attorney or other legal representative, or is mandated by a court ruling. The language found in laws and regulations is often written in complex language and could be confusing to many readers.

H. Identify abbreviations and acronyms

If you plan to use a term with an abbreviation or acronym more than once in a notice, spell the term out the first time it occurs, and place the abbreviation or acronym in parentheses next to the spelled-out term; for example, Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

I. Avoid idiomatic language, slang, and outdated words

Do not use idiomatic language, slang, or outdated words. Using idiomatic language or slang does not make your notice more reader-friendly and is unprofessional. Avoid using outdated words such as “shall” to show readers that they need to do something.

See the examples below.

Use these words

Instead of these words

Reason

must, need to, required to

shall

outdated

should

ought to

idiomatic

vehicle, car

SUV, auto

slang

J. Use contractions when appropriate

Contractions make writing more like spoken language and enhance readability. Use contractions with discretion, and only where they sound natural. For example, say “You won’t have to pay us back….” rather than “You will not have to pay us back….”

K. Use must, may, may not, will not, cannot, should, and will correctly

Follow these guidelines when you use the words must, may, may not, will not, cannot, should, and will in your notice:

  • Use must to indicate a requirement or obligation.

  • Use may to show permission, possibility, or choice.

  • Use may not to convey a possible prohibition.

  • Use will not or cannot to convey an absolute prohibition.

  • Use should to denote preference.

  • Use will to indicate future action.

L. Choose the correct word

Check to make sure you use words in the notice correctly. Tools, such as spell-check, do not always identify improperly used words.

1. Frequently misused words

Some of the most frequently misused words are:

  • there, their, they’re

  • ensure, assure, insure

  • affect, effect

  • who, whom

  • that, which

  • its, it’s

  • your, you’re

2. Additional word usage guidelines

Use the guidelines below to ensure correct word choice in some additional word usage situations.

  • When referring to a group of people, use "who," rather than "that." For example, write "Please advise nonattorney representatives who may be eligible for direct payment to register with us now."

  • Do not use "this" without a subject. Write "how this policy will be implemented," rather than "how this will be implemented."

  • Do not use “and/or.”

M. Guidelines to use when referring to the Social Security Administration (SSA)

When referring to SSA in your notices:

  • Refer to SSA as “we,” “us,” and “our.”

  • Do not capitalize the letter “a” in the word agency, even when using it to refer specifically to SSA.
    EXAMPLE: The agency’s procedures are available to the public.


To Link to this section - Use this URL:
http://policy.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/0900610030
NL 00610.030 - Writing Guidelines for Notices - 08/12/2009
Batch run: 08/13/2009
Rev:08/12/2009