Revising the Foreign Affairs Manual

In 2004, the Department of State established a Standing Committee on Directives. The purpose of the Standing Committee was a comprehensive program to revise the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) and its supplemental handbooks. Our goal was to bring the entire FAM up-to-date, make it timely and accurate, easier to read and understand, and easier to search for and find regulations, sources, and supporting documentation.

To accomplish this ambitious undertaking, 23 bureaus and offices developed detailed plans for updating their assigned volumes.

To bring clarity and consistency to State’s directives, we designed new FAM standards to guide drafters in writing new material and revising existing texts. The standards included using:

  • Short, clear sentences;
  • The second person (you);
  • Strong and precise verbs;
  • The active voice;
  • Precise word placement (to avoid confusion);
  • Informative headings;
  • Examples, diagrams, tables, and charts to clarify the text; and
  • An informal, natural tone (as if you were speaking to the reader in person).

To enhance the visual structure, we revised the FAM’s format and style by introducing cascading paragraphs, color-coded headers, and specialized text. Additionally, we adopted the Government Printing Office Manual of Style to serve as our guide for establishing consistency in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, etc.

To speed the navigation process, we use hyperlinks throughout the text, so that you can quickly move from policy to operating guidance, from one volume to another, and to pertinent regulatory sources located on other government websites.

Lastly, we brought 21st century technology in the form of a powerful new search engine and a heavy-duty tracking system for document changes and clearances. This ambitious project expanded over two years before its completion.

Plain Writing: Key Points

You will discover many new writing principles from the hyperlinks that follow, all of which we hope you find very useful. We feel, however, the following are the most important points to emphasize when writing effectively:

  • Pronouns as subjects—Use second person, “you,” or the first person “I/we.” You, the reader, will understand who is responsible.
  • Voice—Use the active voice (e.g., John received the assignment) rather than the passive voice (e.g., The assignment was received by John.). The passive voice leaves unstated one of the more critical regulatory questions—who is responsible for taking action or who received the action.
  • Verbs—Use strong verbs to drive the desired action required in a sentence. Avoid weak verbs that need the support of additional modifiers. For example, “He provides assistance to the ICASS Council.” “Provides” is a weak verb, turning what is the more powerful verb “assist” into a noun. The sentence should read: “He “assists” the ICASS Council.”
  • Precise verbs—Precision is critical when writing regulations and policy documents (such as FAMs and FAHs). The documents are both instructional as well as informative. Therefore, use definitive verbs to avoid any type of misinterpretation..
  • Examples of precise verbs—use the verb “must” when you want to tell the reader that he or she has no choice—the action is mandatory. Use the verb “may” when you want to give the reader the option of doing something. Do not use the verbs “can” or “should.” They are unclear. Use “will” only to describe a future event. Do not use it in place of “must.” Use “only” carefully. You can easily confuse if you put it in the wrong place in a sentence (e.g., “We only require you to provide the following…”as opposed to “We require you to provide only the following…”). Remember: Keep the word “only” and the word it modifies together. Apply this same principle when using the word “just.”
  • Length of sentences—Keep our sentences as short as possible. The ideal is 15 to 20 words. In most cases, a sentence should not exceed 30 words. Consider breaking long sentences into lists or tables. Readers understand those much more easily.
  • Our intent—describes the intent we want to convey to the reader, keeping in mind the cultural differences he or she may be encountering. Working in a foreign country, the reader may not always be able to meet the “letter of the law,” in this case the document we are drafting. To help him or her, describe our intent, and then tell the reader how much latitude of action he or she has, when latitude exists.

Plain Language Website

Click on http://www.plainlanguage.gov/index.cfm to go to the government-wide plain language website. The site lists many more principles of drafting and gives numerous examples of how to write using the clearer style.

Department of State

Plain Writing Act Compliance Report - July 6, 2011 - Outline of steps the Department has taken to comply with the Plain Writing Act

Other Plain Writing Resources

The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) Links

Plain Language Resources - The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) is a group of federal employees from many different agencies and specialties who support the use of clear communication in government writing

Plain Language Federal Guidelines - Federal Plain Language Guidelines provided by The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) Link- http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/bigdoc/TOC.cfm

Take Plain Language Training - information on training available through The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) (link- http://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/take_training/index.cfm)

National Archive Links

Document Drafting Handbook - The Document Drafting Handbook is intended to help agencies prepare documents for publication in the Federal Register (link- http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/handbook/)

Plain Language Writing Tools - listing of resources to help writers comply with the Plain Language in Government Writing Memorandum Link- http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/plain-language/)

Making Regulations Readable - techniques for writing readably provided by the National Archives link- http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/plain-language/readable-regulations.html

Drafting Legal Documents - NARA guide to legal writing to help agencies produce clear, enforceable regulatory documents link- http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/legal-docs/

[This is a mobile copy of Plain Writing at the Department of State]