Last year, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, a Law that compels all federal agencies to write documents including; letters, publications, forms, notices, instructions, and web site communications in “plain language.” What that means for all U.S. citizens today is that any federal document necessary for obtaining government benefits or services, or filing taxes, must now employ writing that is clear, concise, organized, and follows the best practices appropriate to the subject or field, and intended audience.
The law specifically states that federal agencies must provide information about any government benefit or service; or explain how to comply with a requirement the Federal Government administers or enforces, in a language that citizens can easily understand and use. Government agencies were given one year to comply and, thus, all federal documents should now be up to plain language standards.
The concept of federal plain language writing came from a group of federal employees—known as the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN)— dedicated to the idea that “we, the people of the United States” deserve clear communications from our government. The government responded with their Plain Language Guidelines, which follow K.I.S.S. principles of writing.
Here is an overall review of those Guidelines. To see the Government’s complete document on Plain Language writing, visit their site at www.plainlanguage.gov. Meanwhile, the following writing tips include information that all writers can use to improve their writing:
- Define your audience and write specifically to them: Use language your audience understands and feels comfortable with.
- Establish your writing style, and follow the specific rules of each: If you are writing a formal document, follow the specific rules of formal writing including such as limited abbreviations, proper capitalization, and industry-specific jargon.
- Write consistently: Well-oiled mechanics and correct punctuation are crucial to the readability of your document. If you are uncertain about a specific rule of grammar, refer to a reliable dictionary, reference book, or an English grammar web site, such as Felicia’s Write, for guidance on correct punctuation, editing, and proofreading. Rely on more than just your computer’s spell check, because it will not always catch your incorrect word choices even though those words were spelled correctly, e.g., fair/fare or board/bored.
- Keep paragraphs short and limited to one main point or idea: Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence, and stick to the main point throughout the paragraph. State your main idea before you provide exceptions and conditions. Summarize important details in the final sentence of the paragraph. Avoid paragraphs that are too long as this tends to confuse or bore readers. If your paragraph begins to sway away from the main idea, it’s time to start a new paragraph.
- Include clarity aids only as needed: Illustrations, maps, and charts provide help in clarifying hard-to-define details found in certain government, medical, research, or technical papers. However, limit the use of clarity aids to only that which is necessary to add emphasis or provide more understanding. Adding too many extra clarity gizmos sometimes leads to cluttered and incomprehensible work.
- Emphasize important concepts carefully: Government and technical writing should limit the use of analogies, similes, and metaphors as descriptions. Minimize cross-references.