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Senate Passes Braley Plain Language Act
Bill to Simplify Public Documents Receives Unanimous Consent

Washington, DC – Rep. Bruce Braley announced today the US Senate passed
the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (H.R. 946) late Monday night. The bill
requires the federal government to write documents, such as tax returns,
federal college aid applications, and Veterans Administration forms in
simple easy-to-understand language.  Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah) had
placed a hold on the bill for months, but recently agreed to lift it after
Braley met with him personally.

"The Plain Writing Act requires a simple change to business-as-usual
that’ll make a big difference for anyone who’s ever filled out a tax
return or received a government document," said Representative Braley.
"This bill shows what bipartisanship can accomplish when we put aside our
differences and work together for the common good. Writing government
documents in plain language will increase government accountability and
will save Americans time and money.  Plain, straightforward language makes
it easy for taxpayers to understand what the federal government is doing
and what services it is offering."

In June, Braley met with Bennett to discuss the bill’s merits and try to
alleviate any of Bennett’s concerns. After making minor changes, Bennett
lifted his hold and the bill passed last night by unanimous consent. The
amended Senate version will now go back to the House for final passage.

The Plain Writing Act requires the federal government to write new
publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents in a “clear,
concise, well-organized” manner that follows the best practices of plain
language writing.

Braley introduced the Plain Language Act in February 2009.  The bill
passed the House by a widely bipartisan margin of 386-33.

Examples of Plain Language in Use: Before and After

Here are three before-and-after examples of how plain language was applied
to federal documents to make them easier to understand.  For more
examples, see http://www.plainlanguage.gova href="" target="_blank" style="color: rgb(28, 81, 168);">>.

Example #1: Medicare Fraud Letter (click link)

Example #2: FDA drug warning label (click link)

Example #3: IRS form (click links)

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YES!!!! I can understand it now hopefully

Is this law just for federal government or for state government as well?
Plain language and common wonder it took so long to pass and a politician had trouble understanding it!
Do you or some of your team members need training to write in plain language? Web Manager University has a course for that. Check out Leslie O'Flahavan's two day workshop where you can bring YOUR web pages to work on - What is better then having live professional help / advise on your website during the class? The course will be held in a computer lab.

Hurry though - registration is filling up!
As someone who works in employee surveys, I can attest that there is a perpetual battle between the policy folks, and language they use (which is often highly legalistic), and the front-line folks who need to frame/phrase things from the perspective of the citizen/employee. The two example 3s illustrate this nicely. The "before" example is what our policy and procedures requires of you, while the "after" example is dictated more by what you might be thinking at this moment.

At the risk of taking a huge digression, nearly 25 years ago I attended a talk by world-class authority on text comprehension Walter Kintsch (from U of Col at Boulder). Kintsch noted that he had recently (at that time) had cause to consult some software documentation for something he hadn't used in a while. In contrast to the harsh criticisms directed at software documentation (and this was the era where "For Dummies..." books were beginning), he said they were actually surprisingly well-written. However, he noted, they were written from the perspective of an expert, not a novice, and unless you already were an expert, you'd likely find them incomprehensible, not organized according to your present needs, and not explained in any useful fashion. That insight into official documentation of any sort, whether software documentation, or tax forms, is no less true today than it was in the 80's or eras before then.

So, while the legislation itself is supportive, the step that people have to learn to take, be granted permission to take, and actually take, is to consult with novices regularly, so as to understand what they need and want to know, and not just leave it at what you want to tell them. The basis of good writing of any sort is always being able to anticipate your reader, and the varieties of preparation they may have.
Some of us OF's have already been there, done that. Remember Jimmy Carter's "Operation Common Sense," under which we were tasked with re-writing all our Regulations in plain language. At my agency, "Common Sense" just became a verb, as in "Here, common-sense this."


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