Do you know about H.R. 946: The Plain Writing Act of 2010?
I didn’t think so. Not many people know about The Plain Writing Act and there isn’t much evidence of it in most of the government writing we read.
But a Plain Writing Act was signed into law on October 13, 2010. The Act requires the federal government to write all new publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents in a “clear, concise, well-organized” manner that follows the best practices of plain language writing. In other words, to stop writing in “governmentese.”
The Act’s purpose is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of federal agencies by promoting clear government communication that ordinary people (known as “the public”) can understand and use.
The term “plain writing” means writing the reader can readily understand and use because it’s clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain writing.
It’s my understanding that plain writing pertains to every document that a government issues or substantially revises that:
• is relevant to obtaining any federal government benefit or service or filing taxes;
• provides information about any federal government benefit or service; or
• explains how to comply with a requirement the federal government administers or enforces;
• includes (whether paper or electronic) a letter, publication, form, notice, or instruction; and
• does not include a regulation.
What does “plain writing” mean to you?
It means you should be able to read a government document and understand who wrote it, why they wrote it, what it means to you and what actions are required. It means you shouldn’t need to puzzle over sentences that look like paragraphs. You shouldn’t need a dictionary or a law degree to decipher them either. It’s writing that uses plain language. It means the writer uses first person pronouns, active verbs, everyday words, and short sentences and paragraphs. There should be lists and lots of white space to make reading easier.
So far, I haven’t seen much evidence of government agencies adhering to The Plain Writing Act. If you do, will you please let me know?