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Handbook 09-48
September 2009

Chapter 3

English 101: Guidelines for Writing a Performance Work Statement

When writing a performance work statement (PWS), focus on the intended audience. Both the author and the reader must understand the PWS. A variety of personnel from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, such as those from foreign countries, will read and interpret each PWS. Moreover, offerors (usually local nationals or third country nationals in a deployed environment) will interpret words within the PWS to identify potential costs and to determine anticipated profit as well as the ability to compete with other offerors. Therefore, write the PWS with terms that are clear, simple, concise, and legally enforceable.

Writing Guidelines


Style is how you express ideas in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Strive to present information in a concise, accurate, thorough, and logical sequence. Avoid complex words. The purpose of writing is to express, not impress.


Good writing of any type depends on natural order. Eliminate long, complicated sentences by creating two or three short, simple sentences limited to a single thought or idea. Avoid legal phrases, technical jargon, and other elaborate phrases. Strive to omit extraneous words or phrases; eliminate unnecessary words from sentences and omit unnecessary sentences from paragraphs.


A paragraph may consist of one or more sentences to state and discuss a single idea or similar ideas. State the main idea in a topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. The topic sentence provides a base for subsequent sentences that develop and support the main idea. While paragraph length will vary, avoid long paragraphs that may crowd ideas and confuse the reader. Shorter paragraphs are more visually appealing and easier to read and understand. Number paragraphs for easy reference.


Use the active voice. In the active voice, the subject performs rather than receives the action. The active voice is clearer and uses fewer words without reducing clarity. The active voice makes the subject (the contractor) responsible and accountable for the action or performance required.

Active versus passive voice for routine services:



Clean up all debris at the end of each workday.

The debris shall be picked up at the end of each workday.

Empty trash containers twice a week.

Trash containers shall be emptied twice a week.

Install new air filters in accordance with manufacturer's recommendations.

New air filters are required in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations.


Ambiguity is the use of vague, indefinite, or uncertain terms and words. Examples of some ambiguous phrases include securely mounted, properly assembled, and carefully performed. The PWS must be free of ambiguous words or phrases such as etc., as required, as directed, good workmanship, assist, best commercial practice, including but not limited to, and as necessary. These terms are ambiguous because one cannot quantify, precisely measure, or state objectively what they mean.


Use minimal punctuation. Since the goal is to write simple, short, concise sentences, a well-written document should require minimum punctuation. When complicated punctuation is required, consider rewriting the sentence. Construct sentences so that inadvertent misplacement or elimination of a punctuation mark will not alter the intended meaning. For maximum clarity, follow the formal rules of punctuation.

Abbreviations and acronyms

Abbreviations and acronyms are a form of shorthand used to make complex terms short and precise. However, they can cause misunderstandings when the reader is from outside the U.S. or if the abbreviations and acronyms have multiple meanings; for example, CO can mean commanding officer, commissioned officer, or change order. Upon first use, use the complete term followed by the abbreviation or acronym in parentheses. When there are many abbreviations or acronyms, develop a glossary.


Use the full word associated with the symbol unless the meaning is universally clear


Spell out numbers under 10 except when they represent dimensions. Use the numeral form for figures 10 and above. Represent dimensions, degrees of temperature, percentages, and dollars and cents as numerals. One or zero should always be spelled out when used alone. When two numbers are used together to define both size and quantity, use a written word for one of the numbers (for example, six 55-gallon metal drums).

Redundancy and repetition

Avoid redundancy and unnecessary repetition. They reduce clarity and increase the likelihood of ambiguity, inconsistency, and internal contradiction.

Misused words and phrases

The following is a list of commonly misused and abused words, phrases, and terminology that when improperly applied will confuse the reader and obscure rather than clarify the requirements:

  • Shall and will. Use "shall" to specify that a provision is binding and to describe the contractor's work requirements. Use "will" to express a statement of acts and actions that will occur.
  • Shall and should. Use "shall" to specify that a provision is binding; it ordinarily is used to describe the work required to be done by the contractor. Use "should" to indicate an expected course of action or policy that is to be followed unless inappropriate for a particular circumstance.
  • Any and either. These words imply a contractual choice. Unless the intent is to give the contractor a choice, specify the true intent. For instance, the word "any" means a limited number selected at the discretion of the reader (contractor). The statement "mow any areas over" can mean any of the areas selected by the contractor, while "mow areas over" means every area spelled out in the requirements. The word "either" implies a choice between two options. For instance, clean glass on either side is incorrect if the intent is to require the contractor to clean both sides of the glass.
  • And, or, and/or, and etc. Use "and" if both conditions are true and "or" if only one of the conditions is true. Avoid using "and/or" because using those two words together creates ambiguity (are both conditions true or is only one true). Also, avoid the use of "etc." because the reader may not be aware of what constitutes the subset of etc.

Remember, a well-written PWS:

  • Meets the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely) test.
  • Provides a complete definition of the work requirements.
  • Withstands changes in staffing-both contractor and requiring activity.
  • Minimizes interpretation errors.
  • Details obligations, expectations, and deliverables.
  • Identifies acceptance criteria to ensure desired outcomes are achieved.
  • Ties deliverables to contractor payments.
Figure 3-1a. The consequences of a poorly-written PWS for a gravel parking area. Figure 3-1b. The consequences of a poorly-written PWS for a gravel parking area.
Figure 3-1. The consequences of a poorly-written PWS for a gravel parking area.


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