How can you write government documents that are polite but also firm?
For example, should you use Please on application forms?
Yes? But how often? Is it possible that you can over-do the politeness so that it clutters the page and gets in the way of the applicant?
For example, you know when somehow is simply being too polite? Everything is ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘no, you first’. While it’s hard to fault good manners, excessive good manners are irritating.
Here’s an example from a driving licence application form.
Please read accompanying guidance notes before completing this form. Please complete this form in block capitals using a black ballpoint pen. Please place an X in the appropriate boxes. Please do not photocopy this form as it may reduce its quality and result in your application being delayed or rejected.
Too much, isn’t it?
What do we notice about this?
Every sentence starts with Please.
It’s difficult to read.
It’s hard to identify the single most important instruction. This should be first. Attention fades as we scan text.
The first line may be redundant.
Passive phrasing mutes a very important point. Don’t photocopy the document!
How can we improve it?
First, to help non-English speakers and person with learning issues, explain block capitals.
Complete this form in block capitals using a black ballpoint pen.
Some readers won’t understand this. Ballpoint might trick them as well.
Starting every sentence with Please clutters up the text. It adds little value and is a bit annoying. We know they mean well, but it’s too much. Once would be enough.
Here’s another way of writing it:
Please complete the following.
Before you start, read the guidance notes.
Use BLOCK CAPITALS with a black ballpoint pen.
Mark X in the appropriate box.
Do NOT photocopy this form. Poor quality forms may delay your request.
It reduces the word count from 50 to 41, an 18% gain.
The reader can see, at a glance, the key points.
It’s easier to identify what should and should NOT be done.
It reduces confusion. Confused readers call contact centers, which is expensive and creates more paperwork.
It’s more immediate. We use active instead of passive phrasing (being delayed or rejected).
Should you use ‘Please’ in government documents?
Everything has it’s place. It’s nice to be polite, respectful, and courteous.
The thing is not to over-do it. In the previous example, the repetition of please obscured the message.
It’s a bit like when people try to help in the kitchen but just get in your way. Their intentions are good but it makes harder for everyone else.
Write instructions that readers can understand at a glance. Put the most important thing first. Warn them of possible mistakes to avoid. Put yourself on their side.