|Plain Writing: What Do You Do Differently?|
Since President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 into law, articles have regaled readers with examples of "bureaucro-babble" (for example, two long articles in The Washington Post within just four months of each other). I won't indulge in that here, nor will I speculate on whether and how agencies will change to comply with the law.Instead, let's focus on how the law can improve how we write.
What the Law Covers
From PL 111-274: "The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use."
It applies to new publications, forms, and other publicly distributed documents. It does not apply to regulations.
Federal Plain Language Guidelines
The Plain Language Action and Information Network publishes Federal Plain Language Guidelines with tips on how to write in plain language.
The bottom line: The guidelines have the same advice as most other resources that help you write more clearly. Its recommendations are divided into five sections:
1. Think about your audience
3. Write your document
4. Write for the web
The titles of the subsections act as a quick-and-dirty primer ("Use lots of useful headings," "Use active voice," etc.)--again, good suggestions that any careful writer already aims to accomplish.
Excerpts and Takeaways
What do the guidelines suggest we do? Here is an excerpt per chapter, plus my takeaway point:
- Think about your audience: "One of the most popular plain language myths is that you have to 'dumb down' your content so that everyone everywhere can read it." My takeaway: Don't get too wrapped up in the Flesch Reading Level tool in your Word document.
- Organize: "Organize to meet your readers' needs." Takeaway: The structure might be chronological, it might be by topic. It depends on the main points readers need to know.
- Write your document: "Place the main idea before exceptions and conditions." Takeaway: Look at your sentences that begin "While this-and-this..." or "Although that-and-that..."
- Write for the web: "People come to your website with a specific task in mind. If your website doesn't help them complete that task, they leave." Takeaway: The task doesn't have to be a specific action; it can be entertainment or education. But the rule still applies.
- Test: Do one-on-one paraphrase testing (ideally 6 to 9 interviews). Ask participants to read to a certain point and paraphrase what they understood it to mean. Ask about their own reactions and also how they think other readers would react. Takeaway: I like the tip about asking people about others. It might lead to some interesting insights.
Just the First Rule?
As the guidelines say, "the first rule of plain language: write for your audience." When it comes down to it, maybe that's the only rule we really need.
Next month's newsletter will include a list of writing-related books, blogs, and other resources, a little recommended summer reading beyond, ahem, Fifty Shades of Gray.
Let me know what you suggest, whether it's something you have written or something you find useful.