Plain language is the law. And it’s not a moment too soon. For years, I have been preaching clarity in writing to author clients and in business writing classes. Now, someone finally gets it, and that’s President Barack Obama.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act requiring that federal agencies use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” In January 2011, he issued an executive order, Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review, which states that “[our regulatory system] must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.”

Minnesota, where I live, has had a state Plain Language Contract Act since 1981 to mandate that consumer contracts are written in a clear and coherent manner. Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, is one of the first counties in the country to develop a comprehensive program to tackle government jargon (others include Los Angeles County in California and Miami-Dade County in Florida). For a year now, Hennepin County has been simplifying syntax and deflating bloated verbiage on county websites and documents to make it easier for residents to understand what their county is doing.

Plain Is Beautiful

Training people to write clearly, as Hennepin County does, impacts us all, every day and in many ways. It is not dumbing down our language. It is illuminating, instead of obfuscating. Here are just five ways plain language could help you:

  1. Maybe you won’t sign away the farm—accidentally. The plain language movement will help simplify all the documents you routinely sign at the doctor’s office, the bank, credit card companies, and other entities requiring your John or Jane Hancock. If you don’t understand what you are signing, how do you know you are not signing away your rights?
  2. Maybe plain language will keep you out of jail. The courts are filled with people who simply didn’t understand the state or federal regulations they were violating. Plain language helps us know what is expected of us and keeps us on the right side of the law. Here’s an example of a confusing federal regulation translated into plain language.
    Before: When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.
    After: If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.
  3. You’ll be able to find the information you need faster. Plain language saves time for you and everyone else. How many times have you had to reread instructions over and over (and don’t even get me started on the sorry, no-language, step-by-step illustrated guides to assembling an Ikea desk)? If all the instructions in your life were written more clearly, you might have time to buy more stuff and do more things. That should be a no-brainer for all marketers.
  4. If you’re a writer, learning to write simply and with clarity will enhance all areas of your writing—from that love scene you spread over three chapters to the tense moment when the heroine explores a noise in the dark and scary basement (don’t do it!). Whether you’re writing the great American novel or a newsletter for your kid’s school, your job is still to communicate. I’m not trying to stifle creativity here, but be aware that the more flowery the prose, the less understandable it can be and the harder the reader has to work. You are taking a chance; many readers will just give up. Personally, I don’t like losing readers.
  5. Plain language will improve your business. No one buys what they do not understand—except maybe insurance and technology. Anyway, you get the idea. If you want to be persuasive, write clearly and succinctly; use plain, jargon-free language and influence customers, co-workers, even your boss. Everyone in the office knows who the “good writers” are—they’re the folks who draft clean, easy-to-understand, and to-the-point documents.

It is still early so we can’t gauge the impact of plain writing laws on either the federal, state, or local level. However, several Hennepin County departments report they’ve been getting fewer questions about information and processes since websites and documents have been rewritten, according to the Star Tribune.

More on Using Plain Language
Biz Speak Not Spoken Here
11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business
Technical Terms in Plain English
Center for Plain Language
EPA’s Plain Writing Tips: “Clear air . . . clear water . . . . it all depends on clear writing.”

Comments: Tell me about your encounters with crazy, indecipherable language. How would you rewrite?


Bonus writing tip: Find more invaluable tips for putting zing in your writing at WriteTips.