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Construction

Technical Advisory

Development and Review of Specifications Attachment 4

Basic Specification Writing Principles ("Five C’s" of Good Specification Writing)

To effectively communicate requirements, specifications must be clear, concise, complete, correct, and consistent. Some general guidance to ensure that a specification meets these "five C's" of good specification writing is provided below.

  1. Clear
    1. Specifications are a tool to communicate an owner's expectations regarding the performance of the work to the contractor. Specifications need to be understood by the contractor's employees who will be doing the work. The purpose and effect of the specification should be clear from its language, and the language should convey only one meaning. To prevent possible ambiguities, conflicts, and confusion in words and sentence construction, consider the following:
      1. Are roles and responsibilities clearly established? The specifications should clearly indicate the responsibility and authority of both the contractor and the State DOT. Proper use of active voice and imperative mood, as described in Attachment 5, can clarify responsibility. Otherwise, the traditional use of shall and will can also identify responsibility, with shall identifying contractor requirements and will identifying responsibilities of the State DOT or its representative.
      2. Is all information essential? The requirements and procedures defined should be essential to the State DOT evaluation of the product for acceptance and payment purposes. Requirements and procedures that are not essential to evaluating product quality or quantity serve no useful function and lead to non-enforcement in the field.
      3. Does the specification exclude expository explanations? Specifications should not explain the reasons for specific requirements. Explanations and justification for a requirement and instructions associated with its enforcement properly belong in a construction manual or in a design narrative, not in the specifications.
      4. Is consistent terminology used throughout the specifications and contract documents, including the Standard Specifications, drawings, and pay items? For example, terms such as "borrow," "structural fill," and "backfill," should not be used interchangeably on the drawings, specifications, and pay items.
      5. Is all terminology defined? All terminology should be defined, particularly those terms pertaining to the required work of the contractor or terms that have a bearing on the quality of the work or its measurement.
      6. Has all unnecessary legal and technical jargon been eliminated to the extent possible? See the list Needless Words and Jargon for some plain language substitutes for common wordy phrases.
      7. Are requirements expressed using plain and well understood terminology? Words should be used in their true dictionary or technical meaning to avoid conflicts with ordinary or accepted usage. Colloquialisms and slang expressions should be removed from specifications. If a good technical word will clearly describe the idea to the contractor, it should be used exclusively. Specifications should not use synonyms for literary effect. For example, use "excavate" instead of "cut" or "dig" or "bulldoze."
      8. Does the specification include "escape clauses"? Inclusion of phrases such as "as directed by the engineer," "to the satisfaction of the engineer," or "satisfactory to the engineer," should be limited, as such language does not convey a measurable standard. This type of phrase may be used sparingly, such as in unit price items where action taken by the engineer will not involve changes in cost to the contractor.
      9. Has all information been provided or otherwise appropriately referenced? References to information not specifically included within the contract documents should be accompanied by notification of where the information can be obtained. The notification should include a contact office and telephone number so the information is available to the contractor, suppliers, and subcontractors.
      10. Are all abbreviations and acronyms defined? Typically, it is best to define abbreviations and acronyms at the time of first use, if they have not already been defined in the General Provisions (Division 100).
      11. Do pronouns clearly refer to a specific noun? If a pronoun could refer to more than one person or object in a sentence, repeat the name of the person or object instead of using the pronoun, or rewrite the sentence to add clarity.
      12. Could punctuation cause misinterpretation? Recast the sentence if a change in punctuation might change the meaning.
      13. Are modifiers misplaced? Place words carefully to avoid ambiguity. Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs. Place conditionals such as "only" or "always" and other modifiers next to the words they modify. For example, write "you are required to provide only the following," not "you are only required to provide the following."
      14. Has all repetition been removed? Requirements should only be stated once to avoid the possibility of conflicts.
    2. Visually appealing documents are easier to understand than traditional blocks of text and help improve overall clarity. Replacing blocks of text with headings, tables, and white space will help create a clear and uncrowded presentation, in which main points are readily apparent and related items are grouped together. Techniques to improve visual appeal include the following:
      1. Headings. Headings break up information into logical, understandable pieces, which can assist the reader in locating information. Headings should be used consistently (i.e., all paragraphs at the same level within a particular subpart should either use or not use headings). The heading should have enough information to convey the main point of the paragraph, without being so long as to overwhelm the material in the paragraph itself.
      2. Short Paragraphs. Paragraphs should be limited to only one issue. In addition to breaking up material into easily understood segments, this technique also improves readability by allowing the incorporation of informative headings that reflect the issue conveyed in the paragraph.
      3. Vertical Lists. Vertical lists are a useful technique to present multiple items, conditions, and exceptions that readers would otherwise have difficulty absorbing in a block of text. Lists can be used to highlight levels of importance, identify the necessary steps in a process, and clarify the sequential order of steps in a process. However, be sure that the list explicitly conveys whether one, more than one, or all of the list items apply. This can be accomplished by introducing the list with a lead-in sentence. For example,
        1. To indicate an OR situation, the list could be introduced with "…one of the following:"
        2. To indicate an AND/OR situation, one of the following could be used:
          "one or both of the following:" when one or two items apply in a list of two. "one or more of the following:" when more than one item can apply individually. "one or a combination of the following:" when items can be combined.
        3. To indicate an AND situation, the lead-in "…all of the following:" would indicate that all items apply.
  2. Concise. Concise specifications are essential to achieving quality and efficiency in highway construction. Use of the following techniques will help ensure concise language and phrasing.
    1. Use of the active voice is preferred over the passive voice to directly state essential directions and procedures. A specification's goal is to be specific. Because the active voice clearly identifies the responsible party and uses fewer words, it ensures greater specificity than the passive. To convey directions to the contractor, use of the imperative mood can lead to even more concise statements. Used correctly, these techniques can add clarity, fix responsibility, and simplify sentence structure by eliminating words. See the attachment Voice and Mood in Specifications for more information on this topic.
    2. Short sentences that break up information into smaller, easier-to-process units are better for conveying complex information. Long, complicated sentences filled 56 with dependent clauses and exceptions can confuse readers and obscure the main point. When reviewing specifications, see if complex sentences can be broken down into lists or individual sentences.
    3. Eliminate or replace wordy phrases and adjectives and adverbs that do not add to the meaning of the specification.
  3. Complete
    1. Specifications should provide the information necessary to enable a bidder to prepare a complete and responsible bid and to enable the contractor to construct the project properly.
    2. Specifications should be complete and should complement and substantiate the applicable typical sections, dimensions, and details shown on the plans.
    3. Omissions, ambiguities, or inconsistencies in the plans or specifications are not the responsibility of the contractor.
  4. Correct
    1. Specifications should be accurate and factual. Sources of data used in the specification should be reliable and current. Careless statements or statements based on unreliable data are frequently the cause of contract administration problems and contractor claims. Legalistic words and phrases may shorten or clarify specifications, but ensure that usage is correct and that alternate interpretations cannot contradict the intended meaning.
    2. To ensure specifications are technically correct, research the topic area thoroughly and consult subject matter experts as necessary.
  5. Consistent
    1. Consistency in language selection, usage, format, and organization will help prevent conflicts and ambiguities in specifications.
    2. In addition to the need for consistency in writing specifications, specifications must also be consistently enforced. Without consistent enforcement, even a well-written specification becomes ineffective.
Updated: 11/26/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000