Center for Plain Language honors March of Dimes with the Grand ClearMark Award; Charles Schwab captures the Grand WonderMark Award

Posted on Apr 25, 2013 in Plain Language Blog Articles

Washington, DC – A March of Dimes brochure that effectively reaches its target audience with clear, concise writing and excellent graphics was honored with the Center for Plain Language’s Grand ClearMark Award as the best example of clear, concise communicationACharles Schwab magazine ad captured the overall WonderMark Award for the most confusing and complex language. The awards were presented at the Center for Plain Language’s fourth annual national ClearMark Awards, April 16, 2013, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The March of Dimes brochure, entitled Thinking About Your Family Health History, captured the Grand ClearMark Award (best in show). The judges said the brochure is written and designed with its target audience, parents-to-be, in mind. The brochure is an excellent example of plain language with easy to understand medical terms, and a clear, concise, and appropriate writing style designed to appeal to the target audience. The brochure uses colors, font, white space, and graphics effectively to add to its clarity.

“The March of Dimes brochure engages its target audiences with strong visual appeal and clear, concise writing,” said Annetta L. Cheek, PhD, Chair, Board of Directors, Center for Plain Language. “The medical terms are explained, it’s easy to use and offers moms-to-be clear and actionable information. Overall, it is a great example of plain language.”

The Grand WonderMark Award recipient was a Charles Schwab magazine ad. The judges said the ad was contradictory, hard to read and decipher, intimidating, and almost 90 percent of the language was legalese. One judge said, “Once again, a financial institution that expects me to trust them with my money [but] makes it impossible for me to know what they are going to do with my money. My mattress is looking better and better all the time.”

In addition to these two top awards, the ClearMark Awards name a top honoree as well as ClearMarks of Distinction (a plain language role model) and ClearMarks of Merit (a good effort toward plain language) in several different categories. Here are the additional award recipients:

Original or New Document, Nonprofit

WINNER: March of Dimes, White Plains, NY. Thinking About Your Family Health History. This brochure captured the Grand ClearMark Award and is described above.

  • ClearMark of Distinction: Mississippi Valley Conservancy, LaCrosse, WI. 15th Anniversary Magazine.
  • ClearMark of Merit: American Academy of Pediatrics and Centene Corporation/ Language Solutions Inc., Elk Grove Village, IL.

Original or New Documents—Public Sector

WINNER: U.S. Energy Administration Information, D.C. 2012 Writing Style Guide.  The judges said the document effectively uses plain language to teach plain language writing. The tone strikes the perfect chord of one professional talking to another. The writing is clear and the style guide uses headers, subheads, and boxes well. The words “correct” and “incorrect” make it easy to absorb the information. One judge said the style guide is “welcoming” and appropriate for the intended audience.

  • ClearMark of Distinction: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, D.C. “Hungry Pests” Outreach Materials.
  • ClearMark of Merit: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/JBS International, Inc., D.C. Treatment Improvement Protocol 54: Managing Chronic Pain in Adults With or In Recovery From Substance Use Disorders.

Original or New Documents—Private Sector

WINNER: Sun Life Financial, Toronto, Canada. Voluntary Benefits Broker Toolkit lead brochure.  The judges said this is a professional, polished sales piece that has the right tone and messaging and is consistent with the firm’s corporate identity. It uses charts, lists, bullets and photos well and features clear, concise writing appropriate for the audience. The judges said the brochure has a pleasant layout with a good structure and use of white space. The judges also felt that the brochure strikes a compassionate and empathetic tone for the sales team using it.

  • ClearMark of Distinction: Assurant Health, New York City. Access Product Sheet
  • ClearMark of Distinction: United Healthcare/Periscope, Minnetonka. Scarlet Says Good-Bye
  • ClearMark of Distinction: United Healthcare/Catchfire, Minnetonka. National Medicare Education Week
  • ClearMark of Distinction: United Healthcare/Periscope, Minnetonka. “Hello” campaign
  • ClearMark of Merit: Health Dialog, Boston. Help for Anxiety, Treatments that Work

Original or New Documents—Legal

WINNER: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration, Smyma, DE. Boating Infrastructure Grant Program, proposed rule. This rule is written simply and clearly. It avoids legal jargon by using familiar nouns and active verbs. The rule embodies many of the plain language elements including a good use of pronouns, tables and vertical listings in the text. The topic and audience are well defined and the question and answer format coupled with a solid use of plain language achieves the right tone. The proposed rule is easy to follow and explains how the new rule differs from the existing one. This rule is a model for how government agencies should write rules.

  • ClearMark of Distinction: Cooper & Kowalski, LPA, Toledo, OH. Sample Arbitration Clause.

Revised (before and after) — Private Sector

  • ClearMark of Merit: Assurant Health, New York City. Access Welcome Letter

Revised (before and after) — Nonprofit

WINNERCrime Prevention, Ottawa, Canada. Why community-based crime prevention works: case studies of three Ottawa communities. Overall, this document is a tremendous improvement over the previous version. This is a very good rewrite of a document that wasn’t working and now the revised version meets its purpose. The information sounds credible and the case studies make the findings accessible and relevant. Given the purpose of the report, the information is well organized and visually engaging with effective document design that includes the excellent use of headers, quotations and other markers to guide readers through the document.

  • ClearMark of Distinction: Sutter Center for Integrated Care, Sacramento, CA. COPD Spotlight Form.

Revised (before and after) — Public Sector

WINNER: Hennepin County, MN. Visiting the Hennepin County Home School. The purpose of the document is stated in the title and heading so that the intended audience is immediately clear. The writing is understandable and the information is kept to a minimum, informing visitors of just what they need to know. The tone is straightforward and to the point–but not as patronizing or threatening as in the first document. The main improvement with the new version is its simplification, but the improved structure and organization is also notable. The content is well laid out with plenty of white space and appropriate type. In this new version, the information is organized under distinct headings, and the shift from narrative to bulleted text is helpful. This document integrates all the elements of plain language to achieve its purpose.   

  • ClearMark of Distinction: National Asthma Education and Prevention Program, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD. Asthma and Physical Activity in the School: Making a Difference.
  • ClearMark of Distinction: Internal Revenue Service, D.C. CP 2000: Request Verification for Unreported Income, Payments or Credits.
  • ClearMark of Merit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Environmental Health, National Asthma Control Program/Communicatehealth, Inc., Atlanta, GA. Asthma’s Impact on the Nation–Infographic.


WINNER: AARP, D.C. Health Law GuideTurning the Affordable Healthcare Act into a plain language explanation was a major effort that most likely involved tough negotiations with lawyers. This interactive tool is very well done with semi-customized answers and short sections with bullet points in plain language. The site is a good example of “less is more” when it comes to design and navigation. The rollover pop-ups with clear definitions of technical terms are a bonus. The tone is neutral and professional and hits the right note with its “direct” talk. The writing is clear and concise and delivers on its promise to make the explanation quick and easy. This site is a good example of how a user-centric approach to design and a strong commitment to clear language come together to create a useful site.

  • ClearMark of Distinction: Educaloi, Quebec, Canada. Educaloi’s website.
  • ClearMark of Distinction: Crime Prevention Ottawa, Canada. Neighbourhood Toolkit.


WebPrivate Sector/Corporation

WINNER: Aetna, Hartford, CT. Writers’ Center for Excellence. This is an excellent website about plain language that actually uses plain language. The website is beautifully designed–clean, not cluttered with large and irrelevant pictures, and it practices what it preaches. The audience is well defined in the title, and again in the first paragraph. The tone is helpful, professional, and respectful. The design has a strong color scheme, large type, and great use of space. The judges said they could see how the examples and step-by-step instructions are a great resource for Aetna writers. The structure and navigation are clear, purposeful, and inviting. Overall, the judges said this is a brilliant example of plain language in action.

  • ClearMark of Distinction: Unum, Chattanooga, TN. GetBenefitSmart.
  • ClearMark of Distinction: Cigna, Bloomfield, CT. Cigna Health Care Professional Directory.


WebPublic Sector/Government

WINNER: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, D.C. The judges felt this site was way ahead of other public healthcare sites. The user knows exactly what the site is about and who the intended audience is from the first glance. The site uses everyday words to make the content plain and clear, and the familiar tone helps users navigate the content and provides useful information. The site is consistent from a layout perspective with a good use of space and color to drive the user’s attention. Graphics, including pictures, are thoughtfully used to enhance the text. One judge said they will use this website as an example in courses they teach. The accessible content and easy structure combined with the attention to minorities serve the site well. The information is well written and follows the principles of plain language.

  • ClearMark of Merit: Hennepin County, MN. Absentee Voting. 
  • ClearMark of Merit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, D.C. Introduction to Plain Language Course.



WINNER: EmmiSolutions, LLC, ChicagoEmmiTransitions: Heart Failure Series. The judges said this organization understood how to make the material speak to the reader. This is an excellent tool that uses plain language to reach a diverse audience by incorporating interactive technology to allow even those unfamiliar with it to get the information. Although the material is about complex health topics, the language is easy to follow with active verbs, short sentences, and simple sentence structure. The tone is friendly, respectful and warm. One judge said it sounds like a helpful and trustworthy nurse or doctor taking the necessary time to explain complex health issues to a patient.

  • ClearMark of Distinction: Healthwise, Boise, ID. Diabetes Stay in Your Target Range.
  • ClearMark of Merit: Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation, Rockville, MD.Standing Up for Your Health.


While the ClearMark Awards honored the best examples of plain language communications, the WonderMark Awards were presented to the submissions that reflect the worst or most unclear language. According to Dr. Cheek, the awards were named WonderMark because it makes one ask, “I wonder what they were thinking when writing this?”

In addition to the Grand WonderMark Award recipient, Charles Schwab, New York City, here are the other WonderMark recipients:

  • Department of Homeland Security, D.C. DHS form about consideration of deferred action for childhood arrivals. The judges said the form was written in such a bureaucratic style that someone who was born and raised in this country might not recognize the language as English. Even ignoring the 81-word sentence in the opening paragraph, the focus seems to be more about what Homeland Security does than about what the reader needs to know. The Q&A section, which is typically designed to answer the readers’ questions, left one judge dumbstruck. The submitter said that it is an example of lawyers writing legalese with no consideration of their audience. They explained their submission stating “…using legalese that most of your target audience doesn’t understand makes the program inaccessible to the people it is intended to help.”


  • Feldman ENT Group, PC, Chevy Chase, MDConditions of registration The judges said this document was “perfectly dreadful,” especially since it’s given to individuals who may be anxious about their upcoming medical diagnosis, condition and treatment. The submitter said the information was almost impossible to read and the small print made it even more challenging. The submitter added there is no expectation by the physicians that their patients will read or understand this information and admitted that they themselves read only one section. One judge felt that the phrase physician “do no harm” should also include “lawyers and bureaucrats do no harm either.” Another judge added, “A doctor’s office is a place that’s supposed to make you feel safe and cared for. Imagine how patients feel trying to figure out exactly what they are authorizing and consenting to just to make the doctor feel safe.”


  • 1&1 Internet, Philadelphia, PA. Webhosting upgrade letter. This website hosting company markets its services to nonprogrammers and allows technical novices to create and manage websites. The judges said the letter was excessively wordy and that the additional words only serve to confuse the reader. The submitter felt that most of the company’s 10 million clients wouldn’t have any idea what this specific webhosting upgrade letter means. The submitter has a law degree, yet said she didn’t understand any of the technical terms and was unfamiliar with the technical applications mentioned–except for WordPress. The submitter said, “From the layout to calling me “Mr. Portland” (my hometown, but not my name), to poor grammar, the letter is a disaster for the portion of its 10 million clients who are not computer programmers.”

Judges for the ClearMark Awards consisted of an international panel[JL1]  of plain language experts and others interested in plain language. For more information on the 2014 ClearMark or WonderMark nominations, or the 2014 award submissions, go to