A few weeks ago at work, there was a seminar about the Plain Writing Act, which President Obama signed into law on October 13, 2010. The purpose of the act is just as it says: to require federal agencies use plain writing in every covered document issued or substantially revised. I think the Plain Writing Act should have been signed into law a long time ago, because who wants to read through legal jargon when they’re trying to get information about health insurance? It’s especially unfair to the elderly, who shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer just to read about their choice of assisted living centers, nursing homes, etc.
I learned that the general public reads at about an 8th grade level. I don’t think that’s a good thing, but I suspect that with college becoming (supposedly) more affordable these days, and with more people going to college, the nation’s average reading level should rise, hopefully to around the 10th grade level or even higher. Most documents intended for the public viewing and produced by the government are most definitely not written at an 8th grade or even a 10th grade level; they’re written at about a 16th grade level, which is the reading level of the average college senior. Something’s wrong with that picture.
Of course, the plain writing principles don’t have to apply to just legal or government writing. As George Orwell says in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” “As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
So here are a few plain writing tips:
-Use short sentences.
-To quote The Elements of Style, “Omit needless words.”
-If you have a big word, chances are you can find a smaller word or a group of smaller words that mean the same thing and cause less confusion.
-Don’t use noun or adjective strings. Instead of something like, “Draft laboratory animal rights protection regulations” you can say “Draft regulations to protect the rights of laboratory animals.”
-When using any kind of acronym or abbreviation, always define it. Most people don’t have the time, patience, or energy to go hunting for the meanings of abbreviations.
-It might seem like common sense, but it’s often forgotten: write for your audience. Think about who they are. If they’re business professionals, it’s suitable to write at a 10th grade level or higher. If they’re third graders, write at a third grade level.
Plain writing is simple and beautiful by itself, without all those extraneous adverbs and adjectives. The whole point of writing is to convey a message, and if that message is lost among jargon and acronyms and meandering sentences, then you’ve missed the point and your readers are not absorbing your message.