In Plain English, Please
We’ve all read federal tax forms or school loan applications and been left scratching our heads, asking, “What does this mean? What do I need to do?” Hopefully, we’ll be doing less head-scratching now, as federal agencies, including FDA, work to carry out the requirements of the Plain Writing Act.
The law, signed by President Obama in October 2010, requires federal agencies to follow plain language guidelines when writing print and Web documents that help the public:
- Obtain a government service or benefit (like get a school loan); or
- Understand how to comply with a federal requirement (like fill out a tax form).
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 is a big weapon in the “War on Gobbledygook,” a war started by Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to get rid of governmentese. The war rages on today.
The public has been crying out for simple, clear language in government writing for decades. The first known use of the word “governmentese” dates to 1944. The term has several definitions, all with a common theme:
- “Complicated or obscurantist language thought to be characteristic of government bureaucratic statements; officialese” (Dictionary.com)
- “A jargon spoken in government” (Wiktionary.org)
- “Jargon held to be characteristic of government officials” (Merriam-Webster.com)
By following the plain language guidelines, governmentese will hopefully become an obsolete language.
Plain language is the form of communication we use most often in our daily lives. It’s how you talk to a friend sitting at your kitchen table and you want to make sure she understands what you’re saying.
A document written in plain language allows readers to:
- Find what they need;
- Understand what they find; and
- Use what they find to meet their needs.
When writing in plain language, use these elements:
- A logical organization – Organize the writing so it answers questions in the order the reader will ask them.
- Common, everyday words –
Instead of: Say this: Implement Start, Carry out Submit Send, Give Demonstrate Show, Prove
- Short sentences and short paragraphs – Smaller “bites” of information are easier for the reader to digest. Sentences should have 20 words or less. Paragraphs should have no more than seven lines of text, not sentences. It’s better to have only three to four lines of text.
- Pronouns – Use “We” for the agency and “You” for the reader. If writing in a question-and-answer format, use “I” in the questions and “You” in the answers.
- Active voice – Active voice is clear, concise, and direct. It sounds natural and tells the reader who is doing the action. For example, “The applicant’s submission was reviewed by FDA” is passive voice. In active voice, the sentence reads, “We reviewed your submission.”
- Lists and tables – Lists make it easy for the reader to identify all items or steps in a process. They also help the reader see your document’s structure. A word of caution, though – don’t make lists too long because longer lists make it hard for the reader to take in the information.
Tables save words and make the logic and order of the document clear. They also make it easy for the reader to locate specific items and quickly take in complex material.
- Avoid hidden verbs – Eliminating hidden verbs gets rid of unnecessary words and makes the text simpler.
Instead of: Say this: Conduct an analysis Analyze Do an assessment Assess Came to the conclusion of Concluded
It’s important to know your audience before you start writing. Your document should serve the reader’s needs and interests first. It should include only the information the reader needs to know, with the right amount of detail, and in a sequence that is easy to follow.
Governmentese is chock-full of acronyms, and deciphering the alphabet soup isn’t always easy. Acronyms are barriers to effective communication, and their overuse in a document is distracting. The reader will skip right over acronyms without understanding, or caring, what they all mean.
Some plain language acronyms rules are:
- Avoid them if possible;
- Try to have no more than two to a page;
- Use them only if they are convenient for your readers or if spelling the full name out each time is annoying to read;
- Change as many as possible into full words or use an alternative word or phrase (use “the center’s experts” rather than “CVM experts”);
- Use the acronym if that’s what the public is more familiar with (if you’re writing about NASA, use the acronym instead of writing out “National Aeronautics and Space Administration”); and
- If an organization or program is only mentioned once, there’s no need to include the acronym.
Have you ever looked at an article and groaned because it’s just one wall of black text with no white space? Those kinds of articles are hard to get through and aren’t very reader-friendly.
When writing in plain language, you format the document so it’s easy to read and pleasing to look at. Headings and lists increase the blank space on the page, giving the reader’s eye “a place to rest.” Headings are also good because they:
- Allow the reader to quickly find relevant information;
- Break up the information, especially if it’s complex; and
- Help the reader navigate the document.
In our Age of Technology, most people get their information on the Internet. Web users scan a Web page, they don’t read it. Many Web pages, especially government ones, are too dense. When Web users see a too-dense Web page, they tend to quickly move on to another page.
Plain language keeps Web content as short and readable as possible. People read 25 percent slower on the Web, so when writing a document for the Web, cut out 50 percent of your text. Headings and lists are good to have in any document, but especially ones for the Web, because online readers focus on headings and information in bulleted lists.
Legal and scientific experts commonly have some misconceptions about plain language. To clear up these myths, here’s a list of what plain language is not:
- Baby talk, or an attempt to be folksy, playful, or politically correct;
- Removing necessary technical or legal information;
- Simply editorial “polishing;”
- Just using pronouns in a question-and-answer format; or
Federal agencies, including FDA, should use plain language because the public is full of busy people who don’t want to waste time or energy translating difficult or wordy documents. If the information is too hard to read and understand, the public will simply go to another, possibly less accurate, source for the information they want. When a federal agency writes in plain language, it shows a commitment to the public and a desire to communicate effectively.
Federal agencies should use plain language to make their message stand out and to get their message out correctly and clearly the first time. This reduces the time spent re-explaining something, and lessens the frustration for both the public and the agency’s employees who answer questions from the public. Documents written in plain language improve compliance because people are more likely to follow instructions if they understand what they’re supposed to do. They won’t ask you to “say that in plain English please.”
Plain language isn’t just for federal agencies. No matter what type of document you’re writing – an article for a scientific journal, layman’s publication, or newsletter – your readers benefit from clear, concise language that doesn’t require a road map to navigate.
Let’s end by taking a look at some before-and-after examples from PlainLanguage.gov.
This regulation governs disaster assistance for services to prevent hardship caused by fire, flood, or acts of nature that are not provided by FEMA or the Red Cross.
This regulation governs disaster assistance that:
(a) Consists of services to prevent hardship caused by fire, flood, or acts of nature; and
(b) Is furnished by a provider other than FEMA or the Red Cross.
When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.
If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.
Under 25 CFR §1.4(b), the Secretary of the Interior may in specific cases or in specific geographic areas, adopt or make applicable to off-reservation Indian lands all or any part of such laws, ordinances, codes, resolutions, rules or other regulations of the State and political subdivisions in which the land is located as the Secretary shall determine to be in the best interest of the Indian owner or owners in achieving the highest and best use of such property.
Section 1.4(b) of 25 CFR allows us to make State or local laws or regulations apply to your off-reservation lands. We will do this only if we find that it will help you to achieve the highest and best use of your lands.