Language By Law

Does the United States need laws to enforce clear writing? Apparently so, because on October 13, 2010, President Barak Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which seeks “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies … by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”

The Plain Writing Act defines plain writing as “writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.” Plain writing “avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity.” In addition to the Plain Writing Act of 2010, President Obama has signed three additional Executive Orders (E.O. 13563, E.O. 12866, and E.O. 12988) regarding plain writing.

The push for clear, concise, well-organized government writing is nothing new. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

In a 1966 effort to reform government writing, Bureau of Land Management employee John O’Hayre wrote Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go. His book sports illustrations of Mr. Gobbledygook, a government bureaucrat, complete with suit and tie along with a swashbuckling style hat and boots. O’Hayre passionately rallies his BLM troops to join a writing revolution:

“It’s past time government writers realize that a revolution has taken place in American prose, a revolution that started years ago and is operating today at fever pitch … a revolution that demands simple, concise, clear prose. … The flossy, pompous, abstract, complex, jargonistic gobbledygook that passes for communication in government ‘has gotta go!’”

In the ’70s, President Nixon also sought to get rid of bureaucratic gobbledygook by directing the Federal Register be written in “layman’s terms.” The ’70s were also the go-go days for the Plain English Campaign in Britain. Led by writing crusader and citizen activist Chrissie Maher, the Plain English Campaign fights “against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information.” Maher has publicly shredded gobbledygook in Parliament Square as well as visited 10 Downing Street dressed up as the “Gobbledygook Monster.”

Jimmy Carter continued the fight against government gobbledygook by issuing Executive Orders for rewriting government regulations, and President Clinton issued a Presidential Memorandum formalizing the policy that new regulations be written clearly. Clinton’s Vice President, Al Gore, even went so far as to present “No Gobbledygook” awards to federal employees who rewrote bureaucratic jargon into plain, easy-to-understand language.

An April 13, 2011, memo issued by the Office of Management and Budget explains some the benefits of plain writing:

“Avoiding vagueness and unnecessary complexity makes it easier for members of the public to understand and to apply for important benefits and services for which they are eligible. Plain writing can also assist the public in complying with applicable requirements simply because people better understand what they are supposed to do. Plain writing is thus more than just a formal requirement; it can be essential to the successful achievement of legislative and administrative goals, and it also promotes the rule of law.”

Nevertheless, some feel writing clearly means dumbing down their content. In December 2014, I taught a Written Communications seminar for the Brookings Institution’s Executive Education Program. Held in Washington, DC, the seminar was attended by participants from a wide range of federal agencies. One participant employed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) told me, “Our scientists always say they want their work publicized, but they won’t write in a way that non-specialists can understand.”

In fact, the NIH recommends plain language. Their website states, “The NIH distributes health and research information to a wide range of readers, including the general public, Congress, medical practitioners and researchers, and the business and governmental communities. To communicate NIH messages clearly, you should use plain language.” The also recommend plain language for grant applicants.

Another federal agency, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) is the first federal agency to actually track savings from plain writing. One VBA plain-language rewrite of an insurance letter led to a 75 percent improved response rate compared to their original letter. The VBA projected over $8 million in savings from this rewrite “due to decreased costs of tracking down beneficiaries in order to pay claims.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also has a Plain English Handbook chock full of ideas on how to write clear SEC disclosure documents. Its preface, written by legendary investor Warren Buffet, explains his approach to his annual report:

“When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.”

Or as Bryan Garner recommends in Harvard Business Review’s “Guide to Better Business Writing,” for large, diverse audiences: “Focus on a smart non-specialist who’s actually in your audience.”

William Penn said, “Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood.” Clear, concise, well-organized writing? That’s a government program I can support.

To learn more, go to the federal plain writing website: