The Business of Learning

Being long-time advocates for Plain Language (PL), we were pleased to read Governor Dayton’s Executive Order 14-07, “Implementing Plain Language in the Executive Branch,” signed yesterday, March 4.

In his EO, Gov. Dayton writes:

“Plain Language is a communication, which an audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Plain Language will provide Minnesotans better state services by reducing confusion, saving time, and improving customer satisfaction. I order the Governor’s Office and Executive Branch Agencies to take the following steps:

  • Use language commonly understood by the public;
  • Write in short and complete sentences;
  • Present information in a format that is easy-to-find and easy-to-understand; and
  • Clearly state directions and deadlines to the audience.”

This is great news for anyone who has to read notices, letters, reports, web pages, or other documents from state agencies. As noted in The Office of the Governor Blog yesterday, “Dense forms, documents, and websites full of complicated jargon and hard-to-find links create confusion and waste Minnesotans’ time.”

One of the influences on Governor Dayton’s PL initiative is the work of our friend Janice (Ginny) Redish. Ginny is a well-known leader in the fields of technical communications, usability, and plain language (I recommend her book Letting Go of the Words to everyone in a communication role), and it is her definition that is used on the PlainLanguage.gov website:

“A document is in plain language when the people who must (or should) deal with it can

  • find what they need
  • understand what they find
  • use what they find to meet their needs”

There’s really no mystery to PL. So much of it concerns writing clearly and concisely (for example, by using the active voice), and formatting documents for easy understanding (for example, by using headings, lists, and tables as appropriate). But PL also involves clearly understanding your purpose in writing, and, just as important, understanding what your audience needs and wants to know. It involves sequencing information so that you answer your readers’ top questions first, in language they understand, instead of burying the answers in legalese somewhere near the end of the document.

Although some might believe that PL is incompatible with the rigors of legal writing, this isn’t true. In 1999 the American Bar Association passed a resolution urging agencies “to use plain language in writing regulations, as a means of promoting the understanding of legal obligations.” PlainLanguage.gov notes that “support for plain-writing is growing in the legal professions,” and lists several examples.

Another fallacy about PL is that it involves “dumbing down” information, but as Ginny Redish says, it’s really about “respecting the reader’s time.” Kathryn and Michael Summers conducted research that found that both low- and high-literacy users benefit from PL as measured by task completion and time on task. Both groups were also more satisfied with a website after its content had been revised based on PL principles. (People rarely complain about elegant simplicity.)

Although not a mystery, writing in PL is a craft, and like all crafts it takes practice. But the fun of writing is really re-writing. Among the most enjoyable elements of our PL workshops are exercises that involve revising sample documents (web pages, correspondence, instructions, etc.) based on PL principles. The challenge is to make the samples clearer, more concise, and easier to understand.

To get a sense of what’s involved, check out these before-and-after examples on PlainLanguage.gov, and these. (Note: This link opens a PDF.)

Which do you prefer reading?

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