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Plain Language Props: 2010 Census Advance Letter

Scanned census advance letter

Click the thumbnail to see a full scan of the letter, or read the text of the advance letter from the Census Bureau.

The 2010 Census advance letter represents an impressive effort on the part of the U.S. Census Bureau to use plain language in their public communications. The letter is mailed to all households a few days before they received the census form. Here are a few of the plain language techniques used in the letter:

  • Uses the active voice: “When you receive your form, please fill it out and mail it in promptly.”
  • Addresses readers directly using pronouns: “About one week from now, you will receive a 2010 Census form in the mail.”
  • Uses short paragraphs. The body of the letter is two short paragraphs. The first is just two sentences long. This helps readers easily scan for the most important information, and leaves plenty of white space on the page.
  • Covers only one topic in each paragraph. The first paragraph tells readers what action to take. The second paragraph explains the benefits of taking action.

And for the first time in U.S. census history, the Census Bureau sent a bilingual advance letter and form to the over 13 million households in areas where Spanish is predominantly spoken at home.  It’s too soon to tell, but we think the plain language letter could boost census mail-back rates and save the government money.

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