In 2013, we evaluated how effectively federal departments complied with the Plain Writing Act of 2010.
We graded on three distinct elements:
- Information Design
We requested that each department complete a survey about their Plain Language program. Specifically, we asked them to:
- Report information showing compliance with the specific requirements of the Plain
- Writing Act (for instance, the URL for their Plain Writing website)
- Identify documents or webpages that we could analyze for writing and information design
- Describe if and how they tested the writing samples
- Describe challenges and successes within their plain language program
Our reviewers scored submissions using our criteria for plain language. We also used Acrolinx, an electronic text analysis tool, to review samples. Acrolinx provides a statistical analysis of grammar and style trends, and a “readability” score for each writing sample.
Compliance — We determined whether agencies fulfilled the requirements of the Plain Language Act of 2010.
Departments got points for:
- Having a webpage that describes the agency’s plain language efforts
- Providing a feedback channel for people to complain about documents that are hard to understand or praise documents that are written clearly
- Responding to feedback in a timely manner (including our request for documents)
- Having a link to the plain language webpage on their homepage
- Publishing the agency’s Plain Language Plan
- Naming the person in charge of the plain language program
- Publishing an annual report describing what they’ve done
- Training staff to write in plain language
Writing — We reviewed their writing samples to determine if they were easy-to-read, understand, and use.
Our graders asked the following:
- Did the writer limit their use of passive and hidden verbs?
- Did the writer use common words and avoid or define jargon?
- Was the content direct and concise or wordy?
- Was the narrative cohesive?
- Was spelling, grammar, style and terminology correct?
Information design — We reviewed the department used information design to guide readers’ attention and reinforce key messages.
Specifically, we asked ourselves whether:
- The designer used variations in typography (such as bold, or increased size) to help readers organize and understand the content
- The writer used whitespace to effectively separate and highlight content, guiding the reader’s attention to and through the document
- The designer used color to guide the reader’s attention to important information
- The designer chose pictures, charts, or graphics that reinforced and/or extended the written content. Or whether images added “visual interest.” If there were no images or graphics, would adding them help the reader understand?
Agencies that did well got a commendation letter from Congressman Bruce Braley.
Interested in whether your agency would make the grade? Contact us and we’ll let you know what you need to do.
Wondering who is working on plain language in the federal government? See our list of Federal Plain Language Websites and Senior Officials.