How to adopt a plain-language strategy at your agency

Thursday - 10/28/2010, 9:31am EDT

Annetta Cheek, chair, Center for Plain Language

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By Jamie Blanco
Digital News Writer
Federal News Radio

Plain language in government documents is now the law, but changing the culture of "government-speak" to stay compliant can be a challenge for many agencies. So the Center for Plain Language is hosting a hands-on workshop to help feds cut through the acronyms, ambiguous phrases, and long-winded explanations.

Center for Plain Language Chief Annetta Cheek told Federal News Radio the Plain Writing Act of 2010 has good practical requirements in place, such as senior officials overseeing implementation, training courses and avenues for reporting. "But getting down to the nitty-gritty of writing there are a lot of techniques that you can use to make your writing plainer," Cheek said.

Cheek, who was formerly a government writer for 25 years, said two great practices to help feds start down the road to plainer writing are:

  • Make your sentences reasonably short.
  • Use active writing.

"If you do those two things then a lot of other changes will come about in your writing and your writing will evolve into something that is clearer," Cheek said.

Cheek also warned not to "over-write" or add extra jargon in documents that readers don't necessarily need.

"Very often government writers just put down all that government-ese and legal-ese that they're used to writing for years and years and they don't think about how easy it is to read. They put the burden of understanding on the reader, and I believe the burden of understanding should be on the writer."

The number one tactic, Cheek said, for making sure the document written is understandable to readers is to actually have them read it.

If you actually ask someone, just ask someone else in your office to take a look at it, you might be unpleasantly surprised at how difficult the writing is for people that you think can read it. And that causes all sorts of problems. You'll save yourself a lot of time if you make sure, in the first place, that people can read what you're writing...People are often afraid of testing because they think it takes too long and costs too much money and the workshop will discuss several ways of doing that fairly easily.

Another tip from Cheek: Avoid programs online that evaluate the grade-level of the document you have written.

"They can tell you if you're writing is too complex...but the flip side, when it tells you this is of the 8th grade level, that is not accurate," Cheek said, explaining that no matter the order of words such programs will give you the same grade-level. "It's not a good way to determine if you have good writing. It is a good way to determine that you have bad writing."

For more information on attending the workshop and learning more about keeping your agency Plain Language compliant, visit the Center for Plain Language website.