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Report: Plain Writing Act fails to live up to its name

Jeff Horwich Jul 23, 2012
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Jeff Horwich: About a year ago a law went into effect called the Plain Writing Act. The idea is to compel — or at last cajole — federal agencies into communicating with the public in a more accessible way. The other day a nonprofit, the Center for Plain Language, came out with its first report card based on the act — and on the whole these results are not difficult to understand: most agencies are not doing very well.

Annetta Cheek is the director of the Center for Plain Language. Annetta, good to have you here.

Annetta Cheek: Yes, it’s a pleasure to talk with you.

Horwich: Give me one or a couple of your favorite examples of what is still quite wrong with writing in the U.S. federal government. 

Cheek: Well, I can refer back to our WonderMark awards, which we give out to organizations, including government agencies, which just put out some truly terrible piece of communication. Two years ago the grand winner was the I-94 form from the Department of Homeland Security, which is the form you get to fill out when you are coming into this country and you are not a citizen. You know it starts out, ‘Welcome to the U.S.’ and then it has all of these questions implying that you are the worst offender in the universe. 

Horwich: Guilty until proven innocent, I guess. 

Cheek: Yes, exactly. 

Horwich: So, it’s not about the bureaucratese in that case, it’s simply about uninviting language from government. 

Cheek: Yes, yes, and that’s part of Plain Language. And then of course, there’s all the IRS forms, everybody gets those. But I must say that IRS is one of the agencies that’s working hard to correct that problem, but they still have a lot of forms out there that they haven’t gotten to that are still truly terrible.

Horwich: And on your report card, which agencies are doing fairly well?

Cheek: You will be able to find some good material from the Department of Agriculture. I don’t want to overstate this, this is something that is going to take agencies a long time, they have so much material, they have so many people that have written the bureaucratic way for years and years. And it’s not just writing, it’s the viewpoint — do the writers think about the readers needs when they are writing. And in general, writers in a bureaucracy, particularly a government bureaucracy, do not think about the readers.

Horwich: Annetta Cheek with the Center for Plain Language. Good to talk with you.

Cheek: Ok, thanks so much. 

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