What the federal government can (and can't) teach you about "Plain Writing"


Posted March 21, 2018

In 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law to make government communications clearer and more usable for the public. The Obama White House reasonably argued that writing that is “appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience [and] avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity” would yield significant benefits. They cited a study that found the Navy could save as much as $73 million annually by avoiding unnecessary reading and re-reading than “if its officers used the plain style.”
We can debate the effectiveness of the law, but the steps federal agencies have taken to comply can help private organizations understand the best practices that can lead to their staff creating simple and precise written documents.

1: They train staff

Good writing doesn’t “just happen.” It takes work and skill. Fortunately, skills can be trained, developed, and strengthened. With expert guidance and instruction, writers can gain a clearer understanding of how to write with straightforward, easy-to-understand language. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in a 2017 review of its compliance with the 2010 law, wrote that training provided “good examples, practical tips, useful [information], and helpful exercises.”

2: They emphasize the reader rather than the writer

This is a subtle but crucial point: well-written materials always keep the reader foremost in mind. The National Archives puts it nicely: “The goal of plain writing is not just to follow rules. The goal is clear communication. If thinking about rules makes you freeze at the keyboard, then don't obsess about rules. Instead, think about getting your message across clearly. Ask yourself, ‘How will this sound to someone who is not familiar with my topic? Is the reader getting what he or she needs? Does it take more than one reading to understand the message?’”

3: They reward success

The FDA, for example, formally recognizes employees who successfully incorporate plain language principles into their writing with “annual plain language rewards.” According to the Society for Human Resource Management, rewards can improve employee engagement and morale, boosting motivation, loyalty, and productivity.

Did they do enough?

These three practices are excellent for promoting plain writing and language, but we also need to understand where the government fell short. The 2017 HHS compliance report cited several challenges, including inadequate budget for training and a lack of dedicated staff. These issues have practical implications. For example, at the FDA, less than 1% of its 16,000-person workforce completed training on plain writing. The result is uneven implementation of the law across the federal government and the continuation of government writing that reads like, well, government writing. If you want to embrace plain writing at your organizations, you can follow the government’s example – but also learn from its lapses.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.