There’s a reason there’s only one word on a stop sign. A lot of people, however, do not absorb the lesson offered: If you need to make a point, make it succinctly.
In 1993 the Center for Plain Language ((www.centerforplainlanguage.org), a nonprofit agency based in Maryland, opened to convince lawmakers and academicians to cut the gibberish from their presentations. In October the center scored a major win when President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act, mandating that all federal government forms be written in clear, simple language. The act zeros in on tax forms, college aid forms, and the Veterans Administration, some of the most notorious offenders.
The bill itself is, believe it or not, clearly written. The full text of the finalized bill as signed by the president (and available at www.thomas.loc.gov) is remarkably succinct. Under “Purpose” the act states merely “The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”
Even where the act defines its terms it does so in clear language that the Center for Plain Language has ballyhooed – briefly – on its website.
But the center advocates plain language in all cases and offers some tips on communicating more clearly:
Think about your audience. Write what it needs to know in the order it needs to know it.
Keep sentences short and direct.
Write in the active voice. Say “Joe caught a frog,” not “A frog was caught by Joe.”
Do you need it? Don’t use three words where one will do.
Use personal pronouns. Using “you” helps readers relate better to documents than using “one.”