Tips, techniques to write in plain language

Wednesday - 4/17/2013, 5:59am EDT

Robert Agnello, TRICARE Management Activity

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Agencies have made strides in writing federal documents in a simpler and more straightforward way in the more than two years since the Plain Language Writing Act was signed into law. Contractors and the public slowly are finding it easier to understand their writing.

Robert Agnello, the deputy chief in the Web and Creative Services Division of the Defense Department's TRICARE Management Activity, said a few tips and techniques have emerged over the last few years to help agencies further improve this process.

Agnello, who is teaching a course on plain writing Wednesday for TRICARE, said at a recent conference that agencies have more of a reason to write more simply and clearly since the law.

"People are taught to write more complex because it seems smarter. We are taught that in high school, college and graduate school, so people want to use the skills they've learned. But, what we fail to realize is it's not always the professor who is reading your writing," Agnello said. "We need to talk at a level everyone can understand and understand quickly and the first time, and you don't have to do rework. It saves time and money."

Agnello said TRICARE launched its plain language program more than eight years ago in an effort to improve how it communicates with a growing assortment of people.

"We found that we communicate with many diverse populations and have many diverse ways of communicating, so we wanted to make sure our communication products were very plain and effective," he said. "I think that is what plain language achieves."

In fact, the Center for Plain Language recognized the best and worst plain language users from government, non-profit and private companies with its annual ClearMark and WonderMark awards Tuesday night.

Last year, the center awarded the Agriculture Department an "A" grade for its basic implementation of the Plain Language Act. It was one of 12 agencies recognized, with the Veterans Affairs Department earning an "F."

VA's Insurance Service, however, did win a ClearMark Award last year for its revision of its Beneficiary Financial Counseling Questionnaire along with Prudential.

Conversely, last year, the General Services Administration received a WonderMark award for the Federal Acquisition Regulations. The center called the text "extremely dense and unnecessarily circular."

Agnello offered a few specific tips for agencies to improve their writing:

  • Don't bury the lead. Put the most important thing first so if someone reads only the first sentence or so of the document, they get the basics of why the issue or item is important. "Make sure you think about what you want your audience to know and want your audience to do," he said.

  • Trim the fat. Agencies should cut out prepositional phrases and/or redundant words. Keep sentences short and use simple words consistently throughout the document.

  • Write in the active voice. Agnello said there are times when the passive voice is appropriate, but agencies should aim to make sure their audiences know what it means and that they're talking to them. "It's a friendlier tone when using active voice and it also lets them know what we are offering — and not some mythical offering — but what your benefit is and this is what you need to do to access it," he said.

One challenge agencies face is getting employees to overcome the feeling that if they write simple, straightforward documents, it will be seen as "dumbing down" the government.

Agnello said that's far from the case.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa)

"It's not dumbing down. It's making things plainer, clearer and more effective," he said. "It's not smart when people don't understand what you are writing. You could write the smartest thing and it could go in the New Yorker tomorrow, but if people don't understand it and aren't doing what you want, and all of the sudden you have to spend money to answer emails, answer letters, maybe there is litigation or congressional letters, they will turn to other means to get the news and information they need."

Agnello said TRICARE has seen benefits from focusing on plain language, specifically around the user satisfaction of the agency's website.

He said a key ingredient to the success of any plain language effort is, of course, buy-in from the top.

But, just as important is a training program open to the entire staff. He said the PlainLanguage.gov site is one of the better starting points for training.

Congress also is getting involved again. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who sponsored the initial plain language bill, reintroduced Monday the Plain Language Regulations Act to extend the use of simple and straightforward writing to federal regulations. He introduced this bill last session, but it didn't advance in the House.

"The Plain Regulations Act would simplify government rules and regulations, saving small businesses time and freeing up money that can be better used investing in growing the business and creating jobs," he said in a release. "Simplifying regulations won't eliminate costs of compliance, but it will reduce them. It's a common sense idea that can save small businesses money that can quickly attract bipartisan support.

The bill would:

  • Require each agency to designate a senior official responsible for implementing the law.

  • Communicate and train employees to use plain language when writing regulations.

  • Establish an oversight process to make sure agencies are following the law.

  • Give agencies 12 months after the bill's enactment to begin using plain language in regulations.

  • Require agency senior leaders to certify to the Office of Management and Budget that each regulation is written in plain language.

  • Give OMB the ability to send back the regulations if they believe they aren't written in simple, straightforward terms.

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