Health With a Capital H

Coming Soon: Plain Language From the Federal Government

October 19, 2010

Contributed by Dan Johnson

Simplify, simplify, simplify. - Henry David Thoreau

The "Plain Writing Act of 2010" has finally passed both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and is headed for President Obama's desk. What a great idea: to require that Federal agencies adopt a plain and simple writing style so that ordinary people-at last-can understand Government documents.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), gives three before-and-after examples of plain language documents. A label for allergy medicine and a revised tax letter benefit as much from intelligent redesign (adding bold and logical subheads) as from translation into plain English. I was more impressed by the rewrite of a Medicare fraud letter, which reduces it from a paragraph to two clear sentences. I don't see any serious obstacles to implementing the legislation, although critics have suggested a few.


Some people criticize the Plain Language Act for not offering a specific definition of what is meant by "plain language." How about "writing that most of us can understand?" To me, plain language means fewer long and confusing sentences, fewer acronyms, and use of the active rather than the passive voice. Of course, the Web site might help people translate how to implement plain language as well. Though, the old rule that journalists used to be taught is still helpful: If your mother and an intelligent college freshman don't understand what you've written, it's not clear enough. Revise.

Other critics suggest that Government bureaucrats can't write in plain language because it's just too difficult. While it's true that learning to write plainly takes effort, people can and do develop the required skills with practice. In general, that's the writer's job anyway: to do the hard work necessary to make the reader's job easier. There are already writers at many agencies who effectively translate medical and scientific material for lay readers. Now, we're going to need more of them throughout the Government.

Recruit the Bloggers

The challenge is to start preparing plain language writers before the Act goes into effect in late 2011. Why not recruit bloggers within Government and train them to write documents that taxpayers can understand? We have a generation of communicators in the workforce who are constantly interacting through GovLoop, Government blogs, and other social media. Many of them can already write reader-friendly language. Agencies should start early to make plain language expertise a well-supported and respected career path. One step would be to create plain language writing awards, similar to those given by the National Association of Government Communicators or by the National Institutes of Health.

Plenty of resources are available to help more Government writers produce accessible work. The details that make a difference are effectively covered in style guides. There are a few changes that I would like to see made consistently: shorten sentences, use the active voice, replace jargon with simpler words, use acronyms sparingly, and cut out unnecessary words. Actually executing that advice can be either scary or liberating for Government writers who are making the transition, depending on the agency. The commitment to rewriting and revision may be especially painful to some, because there's no avoiding the extra work involved. Remember: Write with your mother in mind. Isn't she a taxpayer too?