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Plain Language Anyone?

How much attention do the various nooks and crannies within our sprawling organism called “government” pay to writing, speaking, posting, or tweeting in plain language? During the interviews that resulted in my becoming a technical writer/editor with ATF, one hiring decision maker stressed that one of my tasks would be to “show [the department] how to write in English.”

Having been here for several months, I’m not sure that the decision maker meant what she said.

That’s okay; change comes slowly. This is not a rant. It is, rather, a query.

How important is plain language in the department, bureau, office, cubicle where you work? What techniques are effective in getting writers to adhere to the principles found on PlainLanguage.gov and similar sites? Is it worth starting a group to share ideas and encouragement? Or does such a group already exist here, and I just haven’t found it yet?

I suspect that the Plain Language movement might be on life support (or less), and I’m curious to see what interest there might be in resuscitating it, if possible or even necessary. I look forward to your comments, ideas, and input.

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Daniel Rosenberg

Nice post! I think we all agree that this is an issue that is front and center when it comes to transparency and open government.

Patrick Quinn

Currently, my agency deploys a robust, solution-driven approach to language policies based on objective consideration of contemporary communications trends in the professional-experience workplace.

Mary Groebner

We have/had a whole ‘Plain Talk’ initiative in WA State gov. I believe there were classes and training materials etc. set up on it. I’m sure the enthusiasm and/or adoption of it varies greatly from area to area even within a given department.

George M. Fodor

Hello Mary–having taught college-level writing classes, I am interested in the classes and training materials you folks developed. I am working on a series of brown-bag lunch chats, each of which focuses on a specific technique of making writing clear, concise, complete, correct, and cordial.

George M. Fodor

Hello Mary–Thanks for the link; the “Guidelines” .pdf is useful, though I’m not familiar with describing forms of the verb “be” as “deadly.” From time to time I’ll offer copies of exercises that seem to work here in DC. So, how many of Washington state employees engage in ‘Plain Talk’ now? How well have folks responded to the executive order?

Peter Sperry

Part of the problem is the definition of “plain language” varies with the audiance. Everyone on this site understands what you meen when you say “posting and tweeting”. My 80 year old mother would imagine you are sitting on a fence doing bird calls. For most of the general public, a handgun is a handgun. Your ATF audiance might want to know if you are referring to a revolver, semi-auto, or machine pistol and what caliber. Conversely, the general public might be totally confused by a reference to a .50 Barrett. Keep in mind, jargon evolves because it makes it easier for people with similar backgrounds, interests jobs etc to communicate. Yes it eventually reaches a point where people outside the “in group” no longer understand the jargon but attempting to reverse the process may only make it easier for people who are not interested enough to learn the jargon to follow exchanges that now become clumsy and awkward for those who have learned it.

Ed Powell

There are a variety or readability formulas and indexes that can HELP with plain language. As an example, newspapers as a whole have a “readability” at the 8th grade level (6th grade level for tabloids and grade 9/10 for broadsheets). In a sample of “public facing” documents that were evaluated with those same formulas in 2009 (job vacancy announcements, federal register notices, grant notices, etc.), the readability was at the college graduate, law school graduate level.
A similiar readability scale that measures the percent of population that can understand a document rated comics at 95%, Sports Illustrated at 65%, Time Magazine at 57%, Auto Insurance at 10% and IRS tax regulations at -6%.
These scales HAVE VALUE as a GUIDE!

Laurel Bowen

@Doug Mashkuri, the article on web writing confuses plain language and usability. Plain language is the art of writing clearly so your audience can understand it. Usability is the art of designing a website (mainly navigation) so that a user can find exactly what they are looking for.

Joshua joseph

Great set of questions. I do research for a good gov’t group (Partnership for Public Service) and think one of the reasons agencies and the press pay attention to our publications is that they are clear and pretty free of research jargon. I’m sure we don’t always adhere to the plain language principles but it a helps to have a communications team that keeps us honest! I previously worked for the publisher BNA and can add that nothing that has improved my writing as much as having it professionally red-lined!

I don’t hear too much about plain language in government, but maybe it just flies under the radar. The last time I heard it mentioned was about a year ago, at a joint OMB/Mercatus Center session. Until 2009, Mercatus published ratings of how well agencies communicated with the public in their annual performance accountability reports and I think plain language was one of the criteria.