Writing in plain language saves time and money while earning trust from taxpayers, Soldiers and businesses. Plus, it’s the law.
by Ms. Mary Kate Aylward
Writing in plain language is:
(a) Easy: Say what you mean to say. Type. Proofread. Run spell check. Hit “send.”
(b) Hard: Choose from among the 171,476 words (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, second edition) of the English language and arrange them according to seemingly arcane rules.
(c) Your duty: Government regulations require you to explain what you spend the taxpayers’ money on and why, and an explanation that the taxpayer can’t understand doesn’t count.
(d) The law of the land since the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010.
(e) All of the above.
(f) None of the above; emojis are the future of human communication.
(It’s (e), all of the above.)
When we talk about “plain language,” we are not talking about good writing, but effective writing. An English teacher might say they’re the same thing, but effective writing is good for a very specific reason: It gets the point across concisely and precisely to as many of the intended audience as possible. It’s writing that works for the people who use the material.
When a document is in plain language, its audience can “quickly and easily find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately on that understanding,” according to the nonprofit Center for Plain Language. (The center, founded by retired federal employees active in the government plain-language movement, advocates for government and business to communicate clearly. It issues an annual report card grading agencies’ writing and sponsors the ClearMark and WonderMark awards for the year’s best and worst writing, respectively.)
That’s the guiding principle. But plain language is reader-focused, so beyond the center’s overarching standard, who the audience is has a lot to do with writing that works. If the audience is fellow specialists, specialized vocabulary is just fine: Chemical engineers communicate in polymers, computer scientists in cognitive networks, and so on. It’s a matter of choosing words that will allow the audience to quickly and easily grasp the meaning. That’s the tough part: Using plain language to communicate technical information is a technical endeavor in and of itself.
It may seem odd to think of plain writing as a technical challenge, given that we all write to one degree or another—emails, Facebook status updates, department reports. But indeed it is. As evidence, witness the powerful forces hindering good, effective writing: The mechanics of grammar and usage aren’t universally taught in schools. The internet broadens access to good, simple writing, yes, but it also hosts countless unpunctuated, misspelled screeds. Scroll through Facebook just a few times a week, and your brain stops registering U SEE THAT cAT VIDEO ! LOL as unusual. Television’s crimes against the English language are manifold: Cable news channels with 24 hours to fill let people natter on without ever making a point. Advertisers desperate to grab consumers’ attention resort to depraved tactics, such as making up words (“manscaping,” “framily”) and delivering crucial information at warp speed and in tiny print.
(a) AND (b), EASY AND HARD
Despite these obstacles, writing plainly and clearly for a general audience can, in theory, be easy. There’s the preliminary matter of understanding the subject inside and out, but once that’s done and dusted, plain language relies on simple words, short sentences and straightforward organization, like a numbered list. Creativity, a large vocabulary and a grasp of the finer points of grammar aren’t necessary. In fact, sometimes those can get in the way.
Then again, plain writing for government and the defense acquisition community is hard in at least two specific ways. The unclear nature of much government writing has its own inertia, creating still more unclear government writing. Ambiguously worded regulations, often spawned by ambiguously worded laws, lead to ambiguously worded policy statements and requests for proposal, as staffers attempt to comply with rules they don’t or can’t fully understand. Use-it-or-lose-it budgeting and the need to keep options open also create incentives to be less than clear. Think of writing a requirements document: You want to say what you need in a capability while leaving room for companies to be creative in meeting that need.
In addition, the defense community deals with the dangerous and the deadly. Euphemism and jargon can keep at a distance the powerful consequences of the decisions we make and the products we buy. This is normal and human. But it’s also something to be aware of.
Whatever the subject, writing in plain language starts with understanding. What do you need to say, and to whom? How much does your audience already know about the subject?
The Plain Writing Act mandates “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” And yet, the government—an entity for which the capital G does nothing to promote clearer understanding—still churns out plenty of ineffective writing. So, yes, it’s the law, but almost no one abides by it. For one, there’s no penalty. There’s also no step-by-step process to follow. Does that mean effective writing is one of those amorphous “I’ll know it when I see it” affairs? No. All plain language writing passes the same test—the audience for the material can quickly and easily find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately—and shares some of these characteristics:
Not too much jargon. Jargon is specialized vocabulary that tends to exclude those who are not part of a profession or group. Sometimes it is necessary or serves as a useful shorthand. Other times, it’s just to make the group feel exclusive. Jargon should be avoided when it is either a wall between that group and an interested audience or when it is used to obfuscate.
Few, if any, acronyms. Or abbreviations, or initialisms, such as: “the Organization with a Very Long Name (OwVLN) is sourcing for an IDIQ.” A glossary or key doesn’t help much. If a reader has to stop in the middle of reading and move his eyes to the glossary, then back to the sentence at hand, then repeat the operation two lines down, his understanding of the material will suffer. Acronyms and initialisms are also hard to read: the human eye expects capital letters to signal the start of a new sentence or a proper noun. The eye (at least one not accustomed to reading DOD documents) struggles to absorb sentences with random groupings of capital letters scattered throughout. (The difference between an acronym and an initialism is that the former can be pronounced as a word, like LIDAR or MRAP, and the latter cannot, like CIA, which is pronounced as a series of individual letters.)
Short sentences consisting primarily of nouns and verbs. Readers absorb small bites of information more easily than big paragraphs. Adjectives (groundbreaking, excellent, high-performing), or adverbs (totally, quickly, surprisingly, really), especially those that cannot be substantiated, often just clutter up the scene. Nouns and verbs do the hard work. They carry the reader from what happened to who did it. If you overload them with a lot of description, they can’t do their job as well.
Yes: “The rain jacket performed well in the first round of tests. It kept participants drier than the previous version. Seven out of 10 Soldiers at the test said they liked the new design better.”
No: “The rain jacket performed well, exceeding the performance of the previous jacket in terms of water repellence and user comfort, and earning unprecedented accolades from Soldier participants, seven of whom said they liked the new design better.”
The active voice. The active voice provides information; the passive voice tends to hide it. “The decision was made to opt for a sole-source process” is in passive voice and leaves out a key piece of information: Who made the decision?
As a bonus, sentences in the active voice are often shorter. “The platoon overran the enemy position”: six words. “The enemy position was overrun by the platoon”: eight. Saving two words matters for documents long and short. In a long report, the word savings from consistently preferring the active voice add up. In a short email, shaving a few words means that readers can take in the whole email without needing to scroll.
Each word gives the reader new information. What does the reader get out of “The team identified, targeted and implemented new performance measures” that she doesn’t get out of “The team implemented new performance measures”? Likewise, does “The team was able to improve its productivity” in fact mean “The team improved its productivity”?
Dots connect. Plain writing guides readers from point to point. Numbered or bulleted lists, outlines, section headings and subheadings, bullets and transition words such as “thus,” “similarly” and “in contrast” help readers follow along.
The most important information comes first. Which is to say, BLUF. The most important sentence in the paragraph should be first, and, generally, the most important paragraph in the document should also come first. If the reader needs to take action, that piece of information is often more important than others and should appear sooner.
Yes: “The Office of Small Business Initiatives requires competitors to submit Form TX89 by May 1. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a copy of the form. On the form, you will report your business’s past dealings with the Army. This is an important part of your application.”
No: “A high-level description of a competitor’s prior history with, and access to, the Army Office of Small Business Initiatives (AOSBI), is an important part of an application packet. Copies of Form TX89 are distributed to competitors by email; contact the AOSBI for more information. For those wishing to apply, the form is due May 1.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Think of how you feel when you receive a packet of bewildering corporate-speak from your insurer or cable provider, filled with acronyms and asterisks and fine print. You know you have to do something—and probably soon—but can’t figure out how or why. Does it feel like they’re on your side? Or do you feel annoyed, helpless, confused; do you feel like they’re trying to pull a fast one?
It’s important to talk about what we in Army acquisition do in language that the taxpayer can understand. Communicating with taxpayers and citizens is part of our job; words are tools, and it’s important to use them correctly. When you’re soldering a switch to a motherboard, you would not say to yourself, “Well, a wrench would do just as well as a blowtorch here.” When you are telling the taxpayer what you’ve done with their money, “A groundbreaking SWDA-compliant discrete force multiplier” will not do as well as “a water-resistant storage container, with discrete compartments that complies with the Stop Water Damage Act.” Every after-action report, solicitation, user manual or website presents an opportunity to demonstrate that we take our obligation to the Soldier and the taxpayer seriously. Plain language can help us meet this obligation.
On the other hand, if we give in to the pull of bureaucratese—“I don’t have time to revise this”; “it’s basically clear, my co-workers get it”—the potential consequences can be serious. Citizens give up, bewildered, in the face of impenetrable thickets of jargon. Companies that wish to do business with the Army can’t figure out what the Army is asking for.
Unclear language also risks violating the spirit of ethics guidelines, if not the absolute letter. One example: Experiment participants have to give informed consent. If the form participants have to sign is gobbledygook, how informed is the consent?
The Center for Plain Language notes:
“When federal agencies publish regulations and guidance in legalese, people can’t
- Fill out forms or report data correctly
- Access benefits that they need and are entitled to
- Follow the law
When people or businesses don’t follow laws correctly, federal agencies need to follow up, figure out why and fix things. We believe that the follow-up-and-fix efforts cost time and money unnecessarily. If laws and regulations are written in plain language, people can understand and follow them confidently and correctly the first time.”
Plain language is the answer. It saves time and money, it helps us earn citizens’ and Soldiers’ trust, it’s the law and it’s part of our job. It’s a challenge well worth mastering, and it gets easier with practice.
This article is scheduled to be published in the April – June 2017 issue of Army AL&T Magazine.
MS. MARY KATE AYLWARD provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center for SAIC. She has a B.A. in international relations from the College of William & Mary, and eight years’ experience in communications, writing and editing on foreign policy, political and military topics.
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