Plain Spoken Here

There was something so irresistibly tongue-in-cheeky about a little news release from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) we happened upon the other day that we just had to share it.  We do not  doubt the sincerity of this particular agency, by the way.  They do good work.  But still….

The article in question addresses the Plain Writing Act of 2010, a piece of legislation signed by President Obama on 13 October 2010.  The Act requires all Federal agencies to write

…clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.

President Obama also strongly emphasized the value and importance of establishing

a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration

in his 21 January 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and  Open Government.

The Plain Writing Act even has its own website: PWA 2010.

Now, the AHRQ published its news release this month in order to explain how they were complying with the legislation.  Since their mission is to provide us with health information that we can readily understand and use, the AHRQ has committed to using plain language in all its new documents, whether they are directed towards us, the public, or towards other government entities and even its own employees.  These employees have themselves been trained on plain language principles.  There is also a staffer specifically tasked with ensuring compliance.

The agency took the time to set out some guidelines: How can I tell if a document is in plain language? They have also asked anyone who has trouble understanding their paperwork or their web pages to let them know.

Okay.  What does plain-speak look like when put into print?  A writer who uses plain language –

Engages the reader.

  • Considers who the reader is, or might be in the future.
  • Considers what the reader needs to know.
  • Organizes content to answer the reader’s questions.
  • Writes for the appropriate reading level.

Writes clearly.

  • Chooses the correct words:
    • Uses common words
    • Uses personal pronouns, such as ‘you’
    • Uses ‘must’ and not ‘shall’
    • Avoids undefined technical terms
    • Uses positive instead of negative words
    • Avoids gender-specific terminology
    • Avoids long strings of nouns
  • Chooses the correct verb forms:
    • Uses an active voice
    • Uses action verbs
    • Uses the present tense
  • Chooses the correct structure:
    • Uses parallel construction
    • Is direct

Displays and arranges material correctly.

Given that attractive documents are more likely to engage readers, a good writer pays attention to the appearance of his work.  Appearance can also help a reader better understand and retain the information presented.  There are some six basic aspects of appearance –

  • Organization. Logical, systematic and strong organization includes an introduction, followed by short, clear sentences and paragraphs.
  • Introduction. In longer documents, there should be an introduction along with a table of contents showing how the document is organized.
  • Short sentences, short paragraphs. The average sentence length should be 15 to 20 words.  Each paragraph should cover just one topic.  A series of paragraphs is used to explain the technical portions or complex information.
  • Layout.  This means the margins, headings, the white space in between things, and so on.  It all should be easy and pleasant to navigate.  A question-and-answer format is often helpful and simple to follow.
  • Tables. The idea is that properly (!) designed tables and charts make complex information more comprehensible.  This is, after all, the era of the ubiquitous spreadsheet.  Tables also require fewer words than straight text and they help us see relationships and make comparisons more readily.
  • Typography.  This about the actual type fonts and colors used, the style of bullets, inclusion of bold face and italics, that sort of thing.

Evaluates documents.

A good, plain-speaking writer reviews (or has someone else review) a document for –

  • Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation
  • Visual appeal
  • Dates, page numbering and general consistency
  • The effectiveness of the layout and typography
  • Line breaks that manage to separate parts of names or dates in ways that reduce clarity or create confusion.

All of this is great, hardly new, but still great.  However – our government counseling us about good writing, about speaking and writing plainly?  Seriously?   Now,  to be fair, all the plain-speak in the world can’t reduce extremely complex ideas and plans and sophisticated concepts to tri-fold handout language, no matter how hard the poor writers (or campaign staffers) try.  It isn’t just the language that’s the real trouble, anyway.  It’s the stuff we’re actually trying to talk about and make sense of:  There’s a lot at stake that’s not touchy-feely friendly.

Anyway, we had to share this.  The whole thing has a bit of Spoonful of Sugar psychology about it, don’t you find?  And no matter what, you still need to study contracts and policies carefully and ask all your questions until you’re comfortable that you understand exactly what you’re buying by way of insurance.  No amount of plain-speak writing changes that.  Sorry!


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