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Testing for clarity

Testing for clarity

Plain language

We often write documents that are more suitable for us than for our readers. Before completing and distributing a significant King County document, make sure you test what you write. Have others read and comment on the document? Have you tested it with your targeted readers? Is it clear to them? Does it make sense? Do they get your point? Do you get the response you were seeking?

Also, have you--or preferably, someone else--proofread your "final" document? Are there any mistakes in facts or grammar? Does it follow a consistent style and design? Are there typos to correct?

Test your writing with the Plain-language checklist below. 

Microsoft Word

The Spelling and Grammar tool in Microsoft Word is also useful in correcting errors in grammar and style as well as spelling. You can use it to check for concerns like capitalization, misused words, noun and verb phrases, punctuation, clichés and jargon, contractions, gender-specific terms, sentence length and construction, unclear phrases, and wordiness. As with Word's spell-checking function, you should review and confirm (or not) the suggested grammar and style corrections to make sure they apply, correctly, to your document and follow standards of the King County Editorial Style Manual.

The Readability-testing function built into Word's Spelling and Grammar tool can evaluate your document and give you an estimated grade level for readability. Based on a standard formula, the tool will check and rate your document for words per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word, and passive sentences.

An eighth-grade reading level (or lower) is recommended to meet the average adult reading age of about 13. You should, however, also consider other factors that affect the readability and usability of your document: the jargon and terminology used by your target audience, the interest of your target audience, the complexity of the content itself, the probable use of the document, the literacy level of a specific target audience, and so on.

Here's how to use the Spelling and Grammar tool:

Click Review on the Word toolbar at the top. Click Spelling & Grammar at the far left of the menu bar. The tool will automatically go through your document and allow you to make corrections as needed. The tool will also provide a word count and other readability statistics to consider in your editing. 

Plain-language checklist

Your reader and your purpose

Who is my audience?

  • Have I determined my readers?
  • Have I thought about the interests and needs of my readers?
  • Am I trying to change reader behavior?

What do I want to say?

  • Why am I writing this document?
  • What do my readers need to know?

How will my reader use this information?

  • Why will they read this?

Organizing ideas

  • Have I cut irrelevant points and information?
  • Is the information presented logically?
  • Will they find my main points easily?
  • Is the most important information first--at the beginning?
  • Will they know how the document is organized?
  • Can the reader quickly and easily find what they are looking for?
  • Have I guided my reader through the text?

Clear and effective paragraphs

  • Have I used paragraphs with only one topic?
  • Do most of my paragraphs contain no more than five to seven sentences?
  • Have I used paragraphs with sentences that relate to one another?
  • Have I separated unrelated paragraphs with headings and subheadings?

Use lists and bullet points appropriately

  • Have I used bulleted lists to break up complicated text?
  • Do my lists contain parallel points?

Clear and simple sentences

Use active voice verbs--unless there's a strong reason to use passive

  • Have I used the active rather than passive voice?

Keep them short

  • Have I written sentences with only one idea?
  • Have I written sentences with an average length of 20 words?
  • Have I written clearly, concisely without surplus words?

Avoid ambiguity

  • Do my pronouns refer clearly to their related nouns?
  • Have I avoided using negative language?

Use correct punctuation

  • Is my punctuation consistent and useful?
  • Have I used enough periods?

Using appropriate words

  • Have I used the clearest words possible, which my readers will likely understand?

Use simple, everyday, familiar words

  • Have I used words with clear, distinct meanings?
  • Have I replaced overstated, bureaucratic words with shorter, simpler alternatives?

Cut out unnecessary, useless words

  • Have I replaced wordy, bureaucratic phrases with simpler, concise alternatives?
  • Have I replaced verbose, redundant phrases with concise alternatives?

Avoid or explain jargon and technical words

  • Have I avoided using and technical words--or explained them when necessary?
  • Have I avoided terminology, metaphors and jargon that readers may not understand?

Don't change verbs into nouns

  • Have I used verbs to describe action?

Use acronyms and abbreviations carefully

  • Have I explained unfamiliar abbreviations and acronyms?

Use inclusive language

  • Have I used bias-free language?

Enticing design


  • Are most of my paragraphs limited to no more than seven lines?
  • Have I used a left-aligned margin and a ragged-right margin?
  • Have I used plenty of white space?

Informative headings

  • Do my headings and subheadings stand out?
  • Do my headings follow a consistent style and hierarchy?


  • Have I boxed or stressed important information?
  • Have I boldfaced key words and headings?
  • Have I avoided underlining anything but hyperlinks?

Type style and size

  • Have I used a serif typeface and a type size of 10 or 12 points?
  • Do my type sizes and styles meet county and ADA standards?
  • Have I avoided all-cap words and headings?

Color of type and backgrounds

  • Do my colors meet county and ADA standards?
  • Have I avoided large passages of reversed (white) type on a dark background?

Graphics and illustrations

  • Do my visual images meet county and ADA standards?
  • Are my visual images near the text they refer to?
  • Are the charts and graphs clear and understandable?

Testing for clarity

  • Is my content clear and understandable to reviewers?
  • Does it make sense? Do reviewers get my point?
  • Has the document been reviewed and proofread for accuracy, grammar, style and spelling?

To King County Editorial Style Manual