As planners, many of us review and/or write a variety of planning documents daily. While some may dread these tasks, I actually enjoy them. It is no secret that I am a “plannerd” who is passionate about urban planning, and that I love reading and writing about a broad range of planning issues. However, even if you do not like to write or struggle in this area, I think you would have to agree that writing is a key part of our job and we must do it well. In my opinion, two of the biggest ongoing challenges for planners are communicating clearly with the public and maintaining interest on important planning issues. One way to tackle these challenges is to prepare thoughtful and articulate plans or reports that not only reflect the input of our constituents, but are also easy to read and understand. Provided below are ten tips that I have learned over the years.
- Avoid the passive voice: Unfortunately, planning documents are typically filled with sentences written in the passive voice. A passive voice sentence is ambiguous and causes problems because it does not identify the subject, i.e. who or what is responsible for the action implied in the sentence. An example of a passive voice sentence is “A park in-lieu fee shall be paid prior to the clearance of the final map.” The active voice version would be “The developer shall pay the park in-lieu fee before the Department of Parks and Recreation can clear the final map.” By writing the sentence in the active voice, we make it clear who is doing what.
- Write shorter sentences: Planning documents often contain some overly long and complex sentences that try to communicate too much. Each of our sentences should be short (under 20 to 25 words) and should express only one idea. Some may think that short sentences belong only in elementary school classrooms, but readers may actually appreciate them for their clarity and directness.
- Remove extra words: To write shorter sentences, we need to eliminate extra words. Simple words are good substitutes for many wordy phrases typically found in planning documents. For example, “at the present time” can be replaced with “now.” Other examples include using “because” instead of “due to the fact that” and “sufficient” instead of “adequate number of.” Phrases like “it is interesting to note that” or “it is important to add that” may be omitted altogether in some instances.
- Keep paragraphs short: Big paragraphs (like those that take up half a page or more) scare or intimidate readers. They are usually challenging to read and contain multiple ideas that make them hard to follow. We can break up long paragraphs into shorter ones to make them easier to read.
- Use headers: I strongly encourage the use of headers in all planning documents. Headers can help us organize our ideas and outline the plan or report. When used appropriately, they break up the plan into smaller sections, group related ideas, and guide our readers through the document. Headers should also be phrased clearly using easy to understand language. For example, instead of using a rather technical header like “Parkland Spatial Needs Analysis,” simply state “Where are parks most needed?”
- Avoid jargon: The typical planning document is filled with jargons, i.e. words that may have little to no meaning to the average reader. While some of these terms may be necessary in a zoning code, we can avoid them and use more plain language in staff reports or plans that are intended for public review. For example, “mitigate” may be changed to “reduce, avoid, prevent,” “urban fabric” to “appearance or character,” “dwelling unit” to “single-family house or apartment unit,” and “neighborhood commercial uses” to “shops, stores, or businesses.”
- Use simpler words: Some words found in planning documents are not even jargon. They are just overly or unnecessarily complex, and can be replaced with more common words. For example, “approximately” may be changed to “about,” “close proximity” to “near,” “contiguous to” to “next to,” “interface with” to “work with,” “utilize” to “use,” and “subsequent to” to “after.”
- Avoid acronyms: It is hard to avoid the use of acronyms in planning documents, but we should carefully consider when and whether we really need to use one. We should try not to write sentences that contain multiple acronyms which end up sounding overly technical or even awkward. When we use an acronym, we should write out the term in full with the acronym in parenthesis the first time we use it: “California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)” and then use the acronym (“CEQA”) consistently in the rest of the document.
- Use bullets: I tend to use bullets a lot (perhaps too often!), but I find that bulleted points are easier to read and follow instead of long paragraphs. Before using bullets, we should make sure that the items on the list are related. We should also use numbers instead of bullets when detailing a step-by-step process or procedure.
- Write a summary: It is always a good idea to provide an executive summary for planning documents, especially those that are very lengthy. The summary should be written in everyday language and highlight the main point(s) of the document. We may also include a summary at the end of each chapter or major section of a report.
I hope you find the above tips helpful. If you are interested in additional resources, I recommend reading the following:
- Planning in Plain English: Written by Natalie Marcis, this book is a wonderful resource for all planners who want to write more concise, understandable plans and reports.
- How to Create Clear Documents: A Plain Language Handbook: This handbook was created by the County of Los Angeles Quality and Productivity Commission to help County departments transition to the use of plain language and produce clearer documents.
- The Plain Writing Act of 2010: This is a federal law that requires federal agencies to use plain language in every document that the agencies issue or substantially revise.
Note: Photo of laptop computer by author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.