Earlier this summer, government writers got another plain language “goose” when the Washington Post featured the government’s newest plain language guide, The 18F Content Guide. DC’s newspaper reporters were hopeful at this sign that government writers are taking the Plain Writing Act of 2010 seriously. The article lauds the handbook’s conversational tone and the sound, common sense advice it offers readers.
As a language expert and a government writing trainer, I tend to be a little more skeptical. In fact, when a colleague forwarded both the Washington Post article and the guide to me, I thought she was being sarcastic. I was disappointed to learn that many government writers are genuinely pleased to have the 18F at their disposal. That alone I think demonstrates just how much good plain language training and guidance are needed.
Positive Aspects of the 18F Guide
Just in case I sound like a Negative Nancy (which I realize I too often do when it comes to plain language implementation), The 18F Guide does quite a few things very well. First, the guide addresses audience, context, and the author at the start. Those elements of written discourse are pieces of what is commonly called the writer’s triangle (pictured below).
The guide is presented in a format that is easy to access. Sections are brief with headings and subheadings that users can navigate easily. The writers use short sentences and paragraphs. And they speak directly to the reader.
Finally, the chapter on plain language is superlative. The authors attack bureaucratese at its heart, identifying language that is used in vague and figurative ways in government documents. It would be useful to also identify language writers could use instead, which I have done and submitted as a recommended addition to the guide. (It’s not fair for me to criticize unless I also help.)
All of these aspects of the guide are well done. And the team at 18F deserves to be recognized and rewarded for the work that they did to compile the information. The places I find the guide lacking I blame on two factors outside of the authors’ control: 1) duplication and 2) lack of expertise.
The guide contains a chapter called “Avoid Duplication,” and it contains good advice for web content writers. The guide also has chapters on capitalization and punctuation, sections that are both woefully incomplete and thoroughly discussed in another reference work that government writers should be well versed in, the Government Publications Office Style Manual (abbreviated GPO).
Sadly, many of the government writers I train are not aware that the GPO exists. This oversight in orientation needs to be addressed by the Office of Personnel Management as an initial, cost-effective, and simple step toward improving plain language across government agencies.
Lack of Expertise
The second problem with the guide, its lack of expertise, is a little more disturbing. To be fair, the writers are software developers, not language experts. And the Plain Writing Act mandates that government agencies develop a plan, but provides no funding for them to do so. So I completely understand the frustration of having to perform a specialized task with limited resources.
Still, I think it’s unfortunate that “18F” is part of the guide’s title. It sounds Orwellian, and George Orwell would have been the first to rail against any sort of government-speak.
Like most government writers, the guide’s authors confuse acronyms with abbreviations. In the introduction, they refer to information that is neither “actionable” or “understandable,” where they could just as easily have said, “that users can neither use nor understand.” They also state, “We’re of the mind that …” rather than “We think…” These are just a few examples of imprecision or unnecessary wordiness.
The guide stresses that figurative language is inappropriate in government writing, but the subtitle is “Working Toward Cleaner, More Accessible Communication.” Language is not clean or dirty. Those terms are themselves euphemisms, meaning something different than the writers intend. They probably mean simple, or more concise, or clearer.
The guide’s goal is to support writing that “meets citizens where they’re at.” I am not a prude, and sentences can certainly end with a preposition. But why not say, “meets citizens where they are”? It’s fewer words and it has greater emphasis.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires that each federal department implement a plain language plan, offer training, and report its progress online. Departments as disparate as the Internal Revenue Service and Education are thereby left to their own devices. Certainly, these departments serve different constituencies for different reasons, so their guidance will differ. But they need a starting point.
At the risk of sounding self-serving, I would also suggest that writers of plain language guides should consult with an expert, specifically those who have experience with both government writing and plain language. The Center for Plain Language has a list of plain language trainers and consultants. I do not know how CPL vets the contractors, other than to have them pay for a membership and for the right to have their business listed on the website. So do your due diligence before you hire.
If you are a government writer trying to implement plain language, start with the guidelines at plainlanguage.gov and the GPO. Ask your supervisor what guidance your department or agency has created. And look at the 18F Guide’s chapter on Plain Language for some practical suggestions.