Plain Writing

A few weeks ago at work, there was a seminar about the Plain Writing Act, which President Obama signed into law on October 13, 2010. The purpose of the act is just as it says: to require federal agencies use plain writing in every covered document issued or substantially revised. I think the Plain Writing Act should have been signed into law a long time ago, because who wants to read through legal jargon when they’re trying to get information about health insurance? It’s especially unfair to the elderly, who shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer just to read about their choice of assisted living centers, nursing homes, etc.

I learned that the general public reads at about an 8th grade level. I don’t think that’s a good thing, but I suspect that with college becoming (supposedly) more affordable these days, and with more people going to college, the nation’s average reading level should rise, hopefully to around the 10th grade level or even higher. Most documents intended for the public viewing and produced by the government are most definitely not written at an 8th grade or even a 10th grade level; they’re written at about a 16th grade level, which is the reading level of the average college senior. Something’s wrong with that picture.

Of course, the plain writing principles don’t have to apply to just legal or government writing. As George Orwell says in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” “As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

So here are a few plain writing tips:

-Use short sentences.

-To quote The Elements of Style, “Omit needless words.”

-If you have a big word, chances are you can find a smaller word or a group of smaller words that mean the same thing and cause less confusion.

-Don’t use noun or adjective strings. Instead of something like, “Draft laboratory animal rights protection regulations” you can say “Draft regulations to protect the rights of laboratory animals.”

-When using any kind of acronym or abbreviation, always define it. Most people don’t have the time, patience, or energy to go hunting for the meanings of abbreviations.

-It might seem like common sense, but it’s often forgotten: write for your audience. Think about who they are. If they’re business professionals, it’s suitable to write at a 10th grade level or higher. If they’re third graders, write at a third grade level.

Plain writing is simple and beautiful by itself, without all those extraneous adverbs and adjectives. The whole point of writing is to convey a message, and if that message is lost among jargon and acronyms and meandering sentences, then you’ve missed the point and your readers are not absorbing your message.

139 thoughts on “Plain Writing

  1. The other problem with acronyms is that they mean different things in different contexts, which can add even more confusion.

    “Draft laboratory animal rights protection regulations…” One of my pet peeves. I think of phrases like that as speed bumps. You’re moving smoothly through the sentence, and then suddenly BUMP you have to slow down and try to figure out what happened.

    The tricky thing with long sentences is that some characters speak in long sentences, so sometimes you have to use them for that reason. Otherwise, generally, they’re good to avoid, as you say.

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    1. I hate when that happens in a novel… you read the same sentence over and over again, trying to comprehend it and after awhile you just don’t care anymore.

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  2. I think this Act is a great idea. One of the things I can’t stand is when documents contain so much (legal) jargon that I don’t really know what they’re saying…and these are often the documents you are expected to sign! It’s almost as though the documents are written in such a complex way, because the reader is NOT meant to understand it—sometimes I feel this is the case behind insurance documents and credit card agreement documents.

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  3. Knowing your audience is definitely important when writing. I proofread technical documents that are read by both our domestic and international engineers. I have to make sure that the words used are basic and that they will be understood by those with limited English skills. A lot of jargon has to be reworked. Thankfully, our writers have learned from the changes that are needed and are writing more understandable documents.

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  4. I agree that government agencies should issue reports and the like in plain English instead of the dialect of English they prefer, Legalese. I mean, there’s a reason why only lawyers read those 400-page reports about rulings and laws; they’re the only ones who can understand it!

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  5. I love simple writing, no matter what it is. I hate reading books with a dictionary in one hand just to figure out what they are talking about. Usually if there are too many words that I don’t understand I won’t finish reading it, no matter what it is. I love writing but have a really hard time with any kind of math. When I start comparing a novel or whatever with a math problem I know it’s time to leave.

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  6. Well written, and I hope I can take your advice. 🙂

    I fear Mr. Obama will find it hard to change the habits of politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers. Jonathan Swift commented on their jargon back in 1726 (“Gulliver’s Travels”) so it’s an ingrown habit of theirs to make themselves as incomprehensible as possible to the general public. 😉

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    1. That’s true. Once you start talking and writing that way, it’s quite hard to stop. I think they’re taught that writing technique in law school, but I’ve never been, so I really don’t know.

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  7. I remember reading somewhere, “Good writing should not only be easy to understand, it should be difficult to misunderstand.” Whenever I write something crucial, I think of ways in which it could be misunderstood. It helps.
    My favorite piece of advice is “Write for your audience.” People don’t always understand the importance of that.
    Nice post. Congrats on getting freshly pressed.

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    1. I do this myself as well. Sometimes I’ll go back and read four, five and maybe even six times to find errors, or sentences that can be misunderstood or taken the wrong way. Good tip. 🙂

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  8. Acronyms are annoying. Government agencies like NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) 😉 are overflowing with them. I’ feel like people are subconsciously trying to protect knowledge rather than share it when using acronyms.

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  9. I think that when writing anything (novel, legal document, blog post), you should only use the necessary wrods to make a full, coherent sentence that gets effectively makes your point (I even edited that sentence to do what it said to do!)
    I like quality of words over quantity. When writing something, I think of the absolute best way to say what I want to say–the strongest phrase/image with the fewest words.
    It doesn’t always work, but hey…

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  10. Love your ideas about writing more plainly. However, you are too optimistic about improving literacy rates for adults:
    The national [USA] high school graduation rate is 75.5 percent. Currently, one in four students drops out before he/she finishes high school.(1) That’s more than one million students a year.(2) For African-American and Hispanic students, the graduation rate is less than 65 percent. (3)
    Among students who do graduate, one-third need remedial courses in college and far too few go on to earn a college degree. (Figures from http://www.americangraduate.org/learn/research-center/get-the-facts.html)

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  11. I’m a grammar freak and I work in broadcast news, which means I fully concur with your argument! Succinct is almost always more efficient! Great post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

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  12. Love this! Sometimes, whenever I’m reading books (especially books wrote in the 1700s) I can’t keep track of anything because the author always elaborates in every sentence.
    The last sentence of your post is my favorite.

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  13. Your post is perfect timing for me! I was recently promoted at work, and one of my main responsibilities is going to be that all our materials meet health literacy guidelines (I work for a health insurance company.). We have checklists developed for design, writing, and overall messaging. It’s a HUGE project and if a certain piece doesn’t meet the standards, it’s to go back for revision and even be pulled from inventory if it’s a reprint. We are taking the new guidelines very seriously. It’s good to see a post on it. I’m going to share your post with my coworkers. Thanks for sharing, and congrats on being freshly pressed!
    Nicole

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    1. Why thank you! At my job, I have to edit all these complicated health care and health insurance related documents, and yes, it’s definitely a big job!

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  14. I really like this post and I think that a lot more people should be paying attention to the simplistic beauty that the English language is capable of expressing as opposed to drawing out laborious sentences in order to intentionally lose a reader as I think a lot of writers (legislators) purposely do, much like what I’ve done just now.

    I’m a law student. I can’t even begin to explain how much legalese picks at my skin. It’s plain unnecessary. And usually, the wording in legislation is merely a case of poor expression. I mean, if law students/academics can’t understand what the hell’s going on, how on earth are lay people meant to? Didn’t know about the plain writing act, I hope we adopt something similar.

    Nicely put!

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  15. Great tips! I utilize the majority of these tips in my writings. I strongly encourage people to actively increase their reading levels. A thesaurus can work wonders in improving vocabulary.

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  16. I do a lot of scientific writing, and while it is not exactly meant for the people outside my field, there is still the danger of obfuscating them with unnecessary words. Most technical writing is in the passive voice, which adds to the drudgery. So, I like to keep the language as simple as possible. Nice post. Congrats on being freshly pressed!

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  17. High school textbooks top out at a 10th grade reading level. So, if most of our non-college grads finish high school reading at an 8th grade level, I’m wondering how they read their high school textbooks. As a retired high school English teacher, I can tell you…they didn’t.

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  18. A similar act was passed in Britain a long time ago. (Did it ever pass into law? Anyone know?).
    The only thing that changed was that lawyers got a lot of extra money to ‘translate’ their documents.
    It’s a laudable piece of legislation though.

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  19. Lovely post and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I’m a fan of plain speaking as well as writing, but horror of horrors……I recently used the word ‘like’ in it’s 2012 manifestation of; I was like, you know, lost for words so I kind of like, was rambling like a teenage air head. And in Australia everything gets abbreviated; brekky for breakfast, snag for sausages, bbq…..etc. Apparently, if something is ‘like crazy’ the new terminology is ‘cray cray’, and that’s from the younger students I’m at University with. However, I have to say, that their written expression in assignments and on discussion board posts is much easier to read and understand. Maybe there is hope for the written word yet.

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  20. i agree with this article to bits! once you have written something down, with the intention of having it read by someone else, it is no longer your piece of work. I mean that in the sense that, once written, it is for the reader to decipher and interpret. It is the writer’s responsibility to be understood!!

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  21. I always encourage my college writing students to get their points across with the fewest words possible. To be concise and clear is to connect with one’s reader and to keep that connection. At the same time, I warn them that as they progress through their education, they’ll be asked to read things that are muddier and muddier in journal articles in their disciplines. If only there was a “plain writing” clause for academia.

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    1. I wish there was… there’s so many times that you’re supposed to write a 10-page paper, and if you’ve already made your point in six pages, you have to put in all kinds of extra words and sentences so you can meet the page count. It’s foolish. Thanks for commenting!

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  22. I worry that encouraging plain writing means that everything will become “dumbed down,” and ignore the problem, which is as you said: people reading at an 8th grade reading level. It would be better if we moved towards education reform so everyone was reading at an accelerated level. Great article…wonderful food for thought!

    Cheers,
    Courtney Hosny

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  23. Wonderful Post Maggie!! Easily understood, though now we just need to get the legalese to pick up pace, we in the real world would like to know now what we are signing and what you are exactly trying to explain. Plain English is all we ask for. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. 🙂

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  24. Many moons ago when I was in the USAF (United States Air Force) we had a mandantory class to take on writing. It involved using the KISS method. KISS was in a nut shell, Keep It Simple Stupid. We were told to write ‘down’ to the lowest demoniator of our potential audience. In those far off days it was estimated that the average reading level was 6th grade. At least we’ve gone up a couple of levels since then. Great article and congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

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  25. As a technical editor for a government contractor, I concur.

    Random capitalization throughout documents irks me the most, though.

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  26. As a lawyer (albeit non-practising), I see there’s a lot of misconception worldwide that plain English/language/writing is somehow incompatible with legalese. It isn’t. The British legal profession is far ahead of their American cousins in this regard. The British have been using plain language in contracts for most of the past 30 or 40 years (that is, since the 1970s) because the legal consequences is too costly. I’ve had the occasion (misfortune?) of reading the same contracts done up in modern British Legal English and in American Legal English – and I must confess it generally took me days to understand the American version. I pity the average American who has to go through that when buying a home or something.

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  27. I love simplicity in writing as well. Legal writing, though, is a different genre, especially legislation. Reading and writing legislation is like gathering and reading lab data. The folks in the white coats know what all those columns and numbers mean but the patient needs to know, do I have X or not? The numbers may indicate, yes, but the patient needs an interpreter to tell him/her that he/she still doesn’t need surgery or medication, that it is within normal limits. In your example “Draft laboratory animal rights protection regulations” that run-on title may not have anything to do with the protection of animals. The regulations may state the instances where animal rights do not exist and may not protect animals at all. The plain language interpretation might be– draft regulations to protect the rights of laboratory testing facilities. I’ve seen people duped into supporting the wrong thing before because the shorthand used was inaccurate. Legislation, like lab data, is by definition not a good read. But the sharing of the data– that’s where the simplicity, finesse and bedside manner comes in.

    Great rules. Especially not using abbreviations. Congrats on FP. Great Post!

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  28. I’ve also been told to not use any kind of Latin phrases like i.e. or etc and also not to use contractions. I like to break the rules sometimes e.g. using an insane amount of Latin.

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  29. Well said, and well done to those bringing in such an excellent piece of legislation. Too many people think that by using long words and indirect sentences they’ll either make readers think they’re clever or, in the case of some senior managers, get something unpopular around staff without them noticing. In the latter case, readers fall into two categories: those who see straight through it for the cobblers that it is, and those who can’t be bothered to read such hubris.

    In the UK the Plain English Campaign fights for the same cause. Bravo, Plain Writing Act – I hope we get something similar here too!

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