Author – Steven Pinker
[Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal with the author's permission]
Why is so much writing so bad? Why is it so hard to understand a government form, or an academic article or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?
The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to cover their anatomy.
I’ve visited Washington D.C. several times in my life, but my most recent trip felt the most rewarding. As an intern for the Center for Plain Language, I’ve learned quite a bit about what plain language is, and why it’s important. The Center has been fighting for plain language in our government for years, an effort that culminated in the passing of the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Now, the Center is supporting a bill that Representative Braley introduced to the House of Representatives, the Plain Regulations Act of 2013.
I’ve been a journalist and a writing instructor all my career, so I’m familiar with the need to write clearly. But I didn’t hear about Plain Language as a movement until early last year, when I began working as a technical writer for the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, an agency that provides services for people who have disabilities. Shortly after starting my job, I took a class in plain language offered by our Center for Learning Management. That was the first time I realized that clear writing is a political issue…
The assignment was simple in theory–choose one of the article options given to us by our professor, apply the method of plain language to it, and create a clear and concise piece explaining the message. Each of the text options ranged from 8-10 pages and were so laden with filler sentences and convoluted language just reading the intro was a headache.
My group won the ClearMark Grand Prize in 2013. We were thrilled! My colleague and I graciously accepted the award and headed for champagne at the bar next door. I lugged the trophy home to New York and proudly displayed it for everyone to see. Our new medical director seemed impressed—nothing like getting a few brownie points with the new boss.
I won employee of the month for leading health literacy/plain language efforts at the March of Dimes. This got me flowers, my name on a plaque, a free lunch and an up-close employee-of-the-month parking space. I was the queen of plain language. I had the trophy and the parking space.