Readers interested in plain language may encounter a book published in 2012 by Joseph Kimble called Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law. I recently picked up a copy and thought it might be useful to share my reading experience.
The author, Joe Kimble, is a plain language expert. Kimble taught legal writing for 30 years at the Cooley Law School in Michigan. He wrote the elements of plain language, edits The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, and is the founder of Kimble Writing Seminars.
Kimble’s book delivers on the promise of its title. He makes a strong argument that plain language saves time and money through the presentation of numerous case studies. Therein lies the book’s strength and, I would argue, the book’s weakness.
A list of case studies is useful to a certain type of reader. In this situation, that reader is the decision-maker for an organization who must determine whether to implement plain language. On the one hand sits an army of employees, some of whom are impatient to start writing with a fresh voice, while others who authored existing templates will be incensed at a change of regime. On the other resides readers who are clamoring for clarity. Between wait the accountants and the lawyers, each tallying the cost of stasis and change.
Kimble’s book can help this reader quantify and justify the numbers. It can only moderately help this reader mollify the staff or the customer base. And it cannot offer guidance for how to implement change.
To be fair, Kimble does offer some information that may help organizations as they orient staff members to new practices. The third section of the text situates plain language within a global, historical context, listing both events and movements from the mid-‘60s to today. However, his examples are primarily regulatory. He ignores socio-economic factors such as the American civil rights movement or the increasing numbers of WWII veterans earning college degrees and entering government service in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Kimble also does not touch on the mid-century linguistic work conducted by Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, or Chaim Perelman, nor does he mention the radical conjunction between feminism and language explored by Hélène Cixous and Lucy Irigaray, all of which contributed to our understanding of the ways language creates and maintains power structures. Plain language became legally recognized in part as both a civil rights and a human rights issue, concepts that are completely neglected here.
Again, as an aid for the decision-maker, Kimble includes a section dispelling the myths about plain language. The myths are real, in the sense that they are still being perpetuated. And Kimble’s book itself is an attempt to combat them. Still, I think this section could be stronger if it were integrated more closely with both the case studies of section five and the elements of plain language provided in section two.
Regarding the elements of plain language, Kimble says in the foreword, “[t]he book is not flooded with before-and-after examples. […] There’s little justification these days for professing ignorance about what plain language looks like or for claiming that it can’t be done” (xiv). But then he provides an entire section refuting people’s claims that it can’t be done, without a corresponding section on what it looks like.
Instead, his elements of plain language are abbreviated. The section is six pages. It lacks examples. And it’s obtuse. The statement “[p]ut related material together” (7) is irritatingly obvious to the experienced writer. And to the writer who still struggles with this concept, Kimble provides no guidance for how to accomplish the goal.
Worst, Kimble sometimes fails to follow his own advice. I do not wish to belabor the point, but the following statement is just one of the many glaring examples of Kimble violating his own precepts:
“Omit unnecessary words. For one thing, keep prepositional phrases in check” (9).
Clearly, a how-to guide is a different type of work than the one Kimble wrote. Still, I find his assumptions troubling; namely, 1) that plain language practice is self-evident and 2) that his elements of plain language are sufficient guidance.
Similarly, Kimble seems both at pains to define plain language and at equal pains to keep the definition broad. In the end, he adopts the reader-centric definition proposed by Annetta Cheek, former director of the Center for Plain Language (14-16), while also stating:
“it’s no criticism of plain language that it cannot be precisely, mathematically defined; neither can most terms, legal or otherwise” (14).
“So you can pick your definition, and it can be as vague or as precise as you like” (16).
I would argue that Kimble’s ambivalent attitude toward the definition of plain language arises from his inclusion of multiple fields of practice. The subtitle includes business, which covers everything from intellectual property to finance; government, including regulations, tax forms, and military scopes of work; and law. The text also includes examples from the field of health.
Each of these disciplines presents its own challenges. So any attempt to provide a blanket definition, or for that matter an all-encompassing set of guidelines, will obviously be problematic. Kimble’s specialty is law. Perhaps if he wrote a book devoted to plain language in that field alone he would find the task of definition a bit less daunting.
With regards to law, Kimble does an excellent job advising subject matter experts who work with lawyers. He empowers them to challenge boilerplate language, particularly on the, often fictitious, grounds that certain language is necessary because it has passed legal muster (34-35).
The book’s greatest strength probably resides in the wealth of research that Kimble provides. Unfortunately, the research is proffered in footnotes rather than a bibliography. Still, section three consists of an annotated bibliography of publications related to the historical highlights, which many readers will find interesting and informational.
Of the documents he references, the most useful for my readers will be the handbook produced by the Securities and Exchange Commission. I would also encourage readers to look at the references that Kimble includes under the entries for the Document Design Center at the American Institutes for Research, Federal-Employee PLAIN Group and the Clinton-Gore Initiatives, and the Center for Plain Language (78-82). Each has a history and a legacy that readers may find significant.
Bottom line: Kimble has done extensive research in the area of plain language. His book demonstrates the depth of his knowledge, and it has value as a reference tool. But readers who are hungry to learn how to implement plain language should look elsewhere.
Have you read this book? What was your opinion? I’d love to hear your thoughts!