Time for Plain Writing: Myths and Reality

It’s been a month since the House passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Now, we are waiting for the Senate. The next step is for S.574, as the Plain Writing Act is known in the Senate, to be called for a vote.

We’d like to know what they are waiting for.

Representative Bruce Braley puts the case plainly:

“The Plain Writing Act requires a simple change to business-as-usual that’ll make a big difference for anyone who’s ever filled out a tax return or received a government document.”
Can Plain Writing improve your bottom line – or change the way we behave? by Michael Carmichael in Corp!

There are people who disagree, but we think that they base their opposition on myths instead of realities. There are 3 myths that can be easily put to rest:


Myth: Plain language is too hard for federal agencies.

Reality: Many federal agencies already have programs in place that can serve as a model. These spots of light show that it can be done, and done well.

There are several examples of good plain language in health information. Maybe the motivation is the need to “translate” medical information into clear language. One of these sites is healthfinder.gov from the National Health Information Center.

Another initiative is the work by the Federal Trade Commission and 7 other agencies to create a model financial privacy notice. These projects not only promote plain language, but reduce costs by sharing resources.

States have also embraced plain language. Oregon has a similar plain language law for state agencies, and programs from Washington State’s Plain Talk initiative to Florida’s Plain Language Initiative are models that any agency can follow.


Myth: Plain writing isn’t well enough defined.

Reality: There are both good basic guidelines that anyone can follow, and examples of excellent plain language handbooks.

The problems isn’t that we don’t know how to write in plain language, but that we don’t follow our own good advice. These “rules” aren’t hard to understand. But it will take effort to change bad writing habits.


Myth: There’s no point in passing the Plain Writing Act because it doesn’t include strong enforcement.

Reality: The bill requires Federal agencies to put a plain language program in place. We are not so idealistic that we think this is enough to clean up all of the federal communications. But it’s a start, and sets a standard for all agencies to follow.

The real enforcement will have to come from U.S. citizens demanding documents that are easy to understand.

We’re not the only people who think that it’s time for plain writing. Newspapers around the country have weighed in, with articles and editorials supporting the Plain Writing Act.

“One (bill) that senators should quickly approve is the Plain Language Act,The idea – imagine this – is people should be able to understand government documents on the first read.” Oregon Statesman-Journal (March 27, 2010)

“It could reasonably be argued that a government that offers up confusing, hard-to-digest communications to its citizens is simply trying to bamboozle them. Approval seems like a no-brainer‚ĶWe don’t want to see this bill stalled again.” – WFC Courier (March 31)

“Anybody who has tried to wade through the 2,000-page health care bill can tell you government officials are accustomed to complicating the English language. The same is true for government forms — ask anyone who has read through Social Security benefits documents. No one expects government forms to read like novels, but couldn’t they be a little easier?… This one is a no-brainer for the Senate. Just pass it. It makes life easier for people.” – Iowa Telegraph-Herald (April 5)

We couldn’t agree more. We won’t get the clear communication we need from the Federal government unless the Senate passes the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

You can help. Tell your Senators that you support it, and that you hope they will, too.

To keep up with the progress of the Plain Writing Act, you can:

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Center for Plain Language (centerforplainlanguage.org)


Printed April 16, 2014


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