The Elements of (Gov 2.0) Style

The Elements of Style I’m all for the “clarity in government” objective of PLAIN (Plain Language Action and Information Network), the folks who maintain plainlanguage.gov.

I fully understand and support the need for PLAIN’s lofty goal of “Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public,” but don’t quite understand the need to create an entire Website to achieve this.

While I may be simplifying this effort, it seems to me a better approach would be to make Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style required reading for all federal government employees.

I’m a big believer that great writing is fundamental to successful Websites (see Why Gov 2.0 means the U.S. Government must centralize its Web operations).

On June 1, 1998, President Bill Clinton issued a memorandum on Plain Language in Government Writing as part of its reinventing government efforts.

The directive states:

  • By October 1, 1998, use plain language in all new documents, other than regulations, that explain how to obtain a benefit or service or how to comply with a requirement you administer or enforce. For example, these documents may include letters, forms, notices, and instructions. By January 1, 2002, all such documents created prior to October 1, 1998, must also be in plain language.
  • By January 1, 1999, use plain language in all proposed and final rulemaking documents published in the Federal Register, unless you proposed the rule before that date. You should consider rewriting existing regulations in plain language when you have the opportunity and resources to do so.

PLAIN defines plain language as:

Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. Written material is in plain language if your audience can:

* Find what they need;
* Understand what they find; and
* Use what they find to meet their needs.

There are many writing techniques that can help you achieve this goal. Among the most common are:

* Logical organization with the reader in mind
* “You” and other pronouns
* Active voice
* Short sentences
* Common, everyday words
* Easy-to-read design features

No one technique defines plain language. Rather, plain language is defined by results—it is easy to read, understand, and use.

Questions:

  • Is the federal government living up to the mandate?
  • If no, what can we do about it?

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and a strategy consultant for CivicActions and NuCivic. He can be reached at luke@govfresh.com.

4 Responses

  1. A subject close to my heart! Has the need for plain language been taken seriously? I’d be interested to see ‘before and after’ examples of some rewritten documents. There are plenty of technical writers out there who excel in rewriting business documents using plain english (the documents don’t HAVE to be technical, just business documents). Employ them! With more sources releasing more information and making it available to more people (in many cases for Governemnt 2.0 related reasons), the importance of Plain English is now even greater than ever.

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