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 – government needs to make it easier for people to understand official documents. I became an advocate immediately, and started teaching plain language to other employees. It’s become the part of my job that I like best. I like spreading the word that plain language has real-life consequences and that writers create a better world when readers understand what we write and are empowered to make decisions in their own best interest.
I’ve taught administrators, policy writers, program managers, subject matter experts, and counselors. I’ve even had a couple of lawyers in the class. These people write policy manuals for counselors in the field, agency rules and forms, letters to our consumers, and case notes. They also write the websites for the Texas Health and Human Services agencies and divisions that consumers and the general public use. These employees must be able to write clearly so our consumers understand our procedures, their obligations, and their rights.
The Center’s website and plainlanguage.gov have been terrific resources for me. What I like best about the Center’s site is its activist stance—that people should speak up when they’re asked to sign documents that only experts could understand, and that it’s our right to be able to understand documents that affect our legal rights, our finances, and our health. I cover writing not only documents, but writing for the web and writing effective emails. We rewrite examples of unclear language to give participants an immediate opportunity to practice the principles of plain language.
At the end the class, I pass out the federal report card, so that they can see that writing in plain language is taken seriously by the government, and so that they can go to the agencies’ websites to see examples of the good and the bad. They enjoy the writing exercises, and they really enjoy the report cards. I am always gratified by their responses to learning about plain language. On their evaluations of the class, many of them say they want more exercises. In fact, even though my class is three hours long, some of them say that they wish the class were longer. That, to me, is a very good sign for the future of plain language.
Alice Shukalo, Ph.D.
Communications Center for Policy and External Relations
Texas Dept. of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services