“I’m sorry I wrote you such along letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
– Blaise Pascal
We get paid for our expertise. Most of us also get paid to communicate that expertise. But how clearly do we convey our message? The next time you’ve the urge to wax loquacious to dazzle your audience with your expertise, if not your sophisticated command of the English language, consider that US government employees must write plainly. Must? Yes – there’s a law that prescribes it.
US Government Writing -Clear as Mud?
Complaints about how confusing government documents can be, or efforts to try to regulate it, are not new. In 1998, President Clinton issued an executive memo that directed government agencies to write using plain language. In 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act that made writing in plain language law, and established regular reporting requirements on how well government agencies comply. US Government’s website, plainlangauge.gov defines plain writing that is “clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.” Hmmm…that last part indicates a performance curve. The non-profit Center for Plain Language’s has a more results-oriented definition: “A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended readers can readily find what they need, understand it, and use it.”
Who Does It Well – Or Not?
The Center for Plain Language takes US Government Agencies back to school. The 2016 Plain Language Report Card features a letter grade to each major government agency. A+ performers: Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. No Fs or Ds were given, but the Department of Justice earned a C, the lowest grade of all agencies reviewed. And because you all wonder, Department of State earned an A and Department of Defense, an A-, with both earning awards for most improved from the previous year.
How to Do It
Craft your message through the lens of your intended audience. Authors often make the mistake of writing documents with technical information that their peers or superiors would readily understand, but public audiences would not. Avoid using frames of references that are agency-internal. Present data in narrative or graph form to tell a stand-alone story that begins at the reader’s frame of reference, not the author’s. Take no data points for granted – ensure the context is clear so that the audience doesn’t have to guess its relevance. Liberate the message from jargon and extraneous or redundant information, but don’t sacrifice content for brevity.
The Center for Plain Language has a checklist that can take you through an analysis of your product to improve its organization, relevancy, and ease of use. The US Government’s plainlanguage.gov offers a Tips and Tools page with references and guidance that government agencies use to improve their writing. And once you’ve got the document right, share it with your agency’s plain language lead – it might be strong enough to include in your agency’s annual compliance report as a best practice.