Plain Language

There are several definitions of plain language. The simplest is probably “a document is in plain language if the intended audience understands it easily on the first reading.”
The invited speakers were Dr. Annetta Cheek, a career employee of the U.S. government with responsibility for writing and implementing regulations, and Dr. Tom Murawski, a career educator at the U.S. Air Force Academy who has served in the government as a consultant for drafting clear regulations.
Dr. Cheek has been involved in the Plain Language movement since the early 1990s, serving as the chief plain language expert in the National Partnership for Reinventing Government and the Federal Aviation Administration, and administering the website,
Dr. Cheek spoke about the history of the plain language movement, its use in government, the status of current guidelines and recent updates on legislation. Her main message is that use of plain language in documents saves money. Some of the examples were:
In the state of Washington, rewriting instructions in plain language resulted in
o a tripling of state income tax funds collected, at a cost of one cent on the dollar.
o a decline in telephone queries to the Office of Public Records from 10% down to 1%.
o a 95% decrease in hotline calls to the Driver’s License Bureau, with three employees transferred to other duties.
• Cleveland Clinic redesigned its bills, and saw an increase of $1M more per month revenue.
Writing instructions in plain language also improves compliance with instructions, regulations and laws. Dr. Cheek gave these examples, among others:
• A financial services firm rewrote its guidelines on information security and saw
o a 65% increase in employee awareness of rules.
o a 76% increase in employee awareness of the impact of their actions.
o an 85% increase in customer trust.
• Payday loan firms found less borrowing and faster customer payback when customers understood the terms of the loans.
• In the U.S., HUD and FedEx increased employee understanding of their manuals from 53% to 80% after a plain language rewrite.
When asked about when federal regulations will be written in plain language, Dr. Cheek pointed out that the CFR occupies about 21 linear feet of bookshelf space, and the task would be enormous. A bill before the Senate right now, “Plain Writing Act of 2010”, HR946 PCS, explicitly excludes regulations. The bill does require Federal agencies to use plain language in all their other documents.
The newly passed healthcare law has a provision for using plain language. On page 2080, amendment to Section 1311(e), providers of health insurance in the new exchanges are required to use plain language in all their information for the public.
The use of plain language in government and business documents at this time is mainly motivated by economics – it improves the bottom line – rather than by law. A number of governmental organizations, including the SEC, are using plain language but many still are not.
Since the forum audience was made up of professional writers, the second presenter, Dr. Murawski, spoke on how actually to write plain language. He also had the attendees do some writing and editing exercises.
The afternoon session brought the presenters and organizers together for a Q&A session with the attendees. Here are some of the points made.
• If you have manuals to be translated, the fewer words, the lower cost.
•  Using plain language principles to write Instructions for Use can minimize the word count.
• Plain language in IFUs can reduce the number of customer service calls.