US Government passes Plain Language Act
12 Thursday Dec 2013
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It’s official. The government must write in clear English. In October 2010 Congress passed the Plain Language Act (read the guidelines) requiring federal employees to write tax returns, aid applications and forms in easy-to-understand plain language. The Act could make government more transparent and save millions of dollars.
No one questions the beneficial aims of the Act. The Senate passed the Act unanimously in an unusual show of bipartisan support. So the politicians and the taxpayers want clear writing – but can federal employees deliver? They might need some help from StyleWriter to break the habits built up over a couple of hundred years of Washington-speak.
As far back as 1817 Thomas Jefferson lamented that when his fellow lawyers drafted statues they insisted on:
making every other word a ‘said’ or ‘aforesaid’, and saying everything over two or three times, so that nobody but we in the craft can untwist the diction to find out what it means.
- In 1972 President Nixon decreed all agency rules to be in layman’s terms.
- In 1977 President Carter ordered all agencies to use plain English.
- In 1998 President Clinton launched the plain-language initiative.
- In 2010 President Obama signs the Plain Language Act.
The Federal Government has worked hard to improve the clarity of documents. Many agencies have run plain language initiatives, including training courses. Yet few federal employees consistently write in plain English and a StyleWriter audit of government documents shows most writers have a poor style.
The benefits of clear writing are well documented. Clear writing leads to better administration, less wasted time, reduced paperwork and greater efficiency. For example, the US Navy estimated that if its employees wrote in plain language it would save up to $350 million a year. Veteran Benefits Administration saved $40,000 by redrafting one letter in plain language.
Plain Language Software
Several government agencies are using StyleWriter and the Electronic Writing Course to give employees essential writing skills. The Writing Course – designed with advice from the government’s own Plain Language Action Network – uses federal government documents to teach the techniques needed to draft and edit document into a clear style. The Course means agencies can train employees at a fraction of the cost (from $10 an employee) of traditional writing courses.
But any training, especially training trying to change the culture of an organization, is only effective if the trainee puts into effect the lessons learned. Most plain language training fails because:
- Trainees forget many of the ideas presented in the course.
- Trainees don’t have the knowledge and experience to know the thousands of words and phrases, passive verbs and hidden verbs that need editing in typical government documents.
- Managers often undermine plain language initiatives by insisting their subordinates write in their style rather than plain language.
Audits of writing samples taken before and after plain language training show most trainees remember a few basic ideas such as shortening sentences and avoiding a dozen or so words or phrases. Soon, even these ideas fall by the wayside.
StyleWriter changes writing style permanently. It’s the perfect back-up to plain language training. It works on the employees’ own writing, showing how to edit each sentence. Trainees don’t have to remember dozens of rules and thousands of words and phrases to avoid – StyleWriter does this consistently in every document. As well as improving the clarity and readability of the document, each StyleWriter edit, reinforces the lessons of plain language training.
StyleWriter helps in other ways as well. Each US federal agency can adapt StyleWriter to suit its specific needs by creating a house style. The House Style adds thousands of specific rules to StyleWriter such as checking for the correct capitalization of all federal agencies or the preferred way of writing dates. In this way, each agency can buy StyleWriter with the rules already built in. StyleWriter can also audit the current style of government documents and how writing style improves. The program’s Statistical Archive lets each agency report on the specific progress it has made in changing the writing style of its employees.
Several agencies already use StyleWriter to encourage clear writing. Federal Aviation Administration, for example, has a 1,500-user license to StyleWriter. Farm Credit Administration has a StyleWriter license for all its employees. Are our software solutions the key to writing plain language in your government agency? We’re confident StyleWriter and the Electronic Writing Course can guarantee your agency writes consistently in plain language.
Contact Editor Software for more information.