The following commentary piece recenly appeared on Yahoo! Finance under my byline.
I’m not sure what it is with government agencies, but we always seem to add about 15 extra-long words to every sentence. An uncomplicated directive to accomplish a straightforward undertaking thus becomes a convoluted jumble of highfalutin words. (See what I mean?)
President Obama’s Plain Writing Act of 2010 has set about to make some changes. As its goal, government agencies are to use “communication that the public can understand and use.”
In other words, gobbledygook be gone!
The IRS was certainly in the cross hairs of this project. IRS code is written much like the Old Testament, and it’s been said that even our publications struggle to outline simple steps when it comes to tax law and tax return preparation.
Recently, we attended online Plain Writing training. This training was rolled out to all IRS employees nationwide. The training was a back-to-basics evaluation of our written communication with taxpayers and their representatives.
The presentation we had showed nine steps to help us write more clearly. The nine steps were:
- Identify our audience
Before we know the correct tone and content to use, we need to target the demographics of our taxpayer.
- Organize for your average reader
Most taxpayers are not CPAs and attorneys; communication needs to be simple yet professional.
- Use pronouns
We, you, they, and other pronouns make a directive more personable to a reader.
- Use active voice
As opposed to passive voice. Active voice lends immediacy to the reader, and just makes more sense overall.
- Use short sections and paragraphs
Long run-on paragraphs burden the reader and often just get skipped.
- Use common words
Write, “A 1040 tax return is broken down into eight sections” rather than, “A 1040 tax return is compartmentalized into eight sections.”
- Use clear terms and instructions
- Place words carefully and
- Design your document for easy reading
Here’s an example we had of how plain writing works and how improper placement of just one word can cause miscommunication.
We had the following question that might appear on a set of 1040 Instructions and we were given five possible answers:
Which choice means that you should make just one selection?
- Only check the filing status that applies to you.
- Check the only filing status that applies to you.
- Check the filing status that only applies to you.
- Check the filing status that applies to you only.
- Check only the filing status that applies to you.
The correct answer is number five – Check only the filing status that applies to you.
Here’s what the others mean:
Only check the filing status that applies to you means that you should complete just this one task. Although Check the filing status that only applies to you and Check the only filing status that applies to you correctly suggest that your filing status is what is important, the modifier (“only”) should be closer to the verb (“check”). Check the filing status that applies to you only means that only one person could have that filing status.
With the above in mind, the IRS has established a page on our web site for you, Joe Taxpayer, to let us know if a document or a page on our web site is not written in plain language.
Using the Plain Writing – Report an Issue link, provide us with your email address and leave your issue / comment. Your observations will help ensure IRS material remains understanding to all.