The same year Congress passed Obamacare, another monumental piece of legislation made its way to the president’s desk: The Plain Writing Act of 2010. Okay, Okay, there were no floor fights over The Plain Writing Act, no demagoguing or name-calling, no threats of a government shutdown. Its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, was hardly a national figure, and the entire bill weighed in at a mere two-and-a-half pages (compared to the 2,700-page Affordable Care Act). Still, you might say it was one small victory for clear writing.
I came across the actual bill the other day when I was looking at a guide on “Clear Writing Through Critical Thinking” published by UpWrite Press for a Graduate School USA course. I presume the guide was developed for government workers in response to the act, which requires federal agencies to communicate with us citizens using plain language.
I have to say, I like the act’s definition of “plain writing”:
PLAIN WRITING.—The term ‘‘plain writing’’ means writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.
I also like the guide’s “Seven Traits of Writing,” originally developed by researcher Paul Diederich in the 1960s. According to the guide, Diederich asked 50 professionals to identify the qualities that make writing strong. The group came up with hundreds of qualities which were then organized into seven traits. These traits became the basis for teaching writing in many states:
1. Ideas (developing and supporting a strong main point)
• The piece focuses on a main point.
• Supporting points are logically developed and well explained.
• Information is accurate, precise, complete and current.
2. Organization (arranging your ideas in the best order)
• The writing has a strong opening, middle and closing.
• The organization fits with the audience and purpose.
• Details follow a clear order.
• Transitions link sentences, paragraphs and sections.
• Lists make information accessible.
3. Voice (addressing your audience effectively)
• The tone is positive, polite, confident and convincing.
• The piece shows attention to the reader’s perspective.
• The voice connects with and encourages the reader.
4. Words (choosing the best words for your audience)
• Words are conversational and understandable.
• Key words and technical terms are precise and defined.
• Language respects gender, ethnicity and ability.
5. Sentences (using smooth-reading sentences)
• Sentences are concise and easy to read.
• Lengths and patterns are varied.
• Active and passive voice are used effectively.
6. Correctness (following the rules for language use)
• Grammar, punctuation, spelling and mechanics are correct.
• Correctness makes communication clear.
7. Design (presenting a clean, easy-to-read finished document)
• Format is complete and consistent.
• Page design makes the document attractive and easy to read.
You can’t go wrong following these seven traits. Yet, as good as they are, can anyone (besides Strunk & White) match George Orwell for succinctness when it comes to dispensing writing advice?
As a bonus, here are Orwell’s six questions that a “scrupulous writer” should always ask (from his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”):
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
5. Could I put it more shortly?
6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
And here are Orwell’s six rules of style (from the same essay):
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Now that’s worth taping to your computer monitor, along with the definition of plain writing.
(Incidentally, if you’re curious about what the government has done to implement The Plain Writing Act, check out plainlanguage.gov.)