Plain Language 2.0: Implementing a scientific approach

Governments have learned that “plain writing” isn’t so simple.

October 13 will mark the eleventh anniversary of the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The Act requires all U.S. federal agencies to write “clear government communications that the public can understand and use.” Its signing into law by then-President Barack Obama was a historic mandate for the use of plain language by government. Sadly, many agencies still struggle to provide the public with clear, easy to use communications.

The European Union (EU) is also trying to get its member countries writing in plain language, which it calls “clear writing”. This has proven to be no easy task. The EU has 28 member countries and 24 official languages. Translation issues add tremendously to the confusion and inefficiencies caused by poorly written, poorly organized documents.

The high costs of written communications

Most governments spend heavily to create and publish written communications. Storage and management costs are also high.

But the highest costs result when communications are confusing, ambiguous, or inaccurate. When members of the public can’t understand how to interact with government—how to comply with laws, how to request benefits, or how to pay taxes, for example—government agencies’ operating costs rise sharply.

Why is writing in plain language so challenging?

Many agencies provide a brief workshop for employees who write. Typically, the focus of the workshop is on traditional “better business writing” tips like using shorter sentences, the active voice and paragraphs with clear titles. What they’ve learned may help them write a better memo or even a short report but beyond that, conventional approaches to the task of writing usually fail.

Traditional writing workshops don’t help government writers because they don’t fully address the actual issues that cause readers’ confusion and misunderstandings. These include

  • the sheer volume and complexity of the content
  • the diverse nature and needs of the public
  • use of specialized legal language
  • different media platforms
  • team writing, in which multiple writers contribute to a single document, and
  • the ongoing need for revision and updating

Traditional solutions don’t work for today’s writers.

Plain Language 2.0: Implementing a scientific approach

The Information Mapping Methodology is a cognitively based content standard for writing clearly and effectively. It’s been used within the private sector for many years as well as by a growing number of government entities. The methodology is research-based and works where “better writing” workshops fail because it gives writers the skills they need to solve the root causes of poor communication. 

Research confirms that most problems with written communications are not just at the word, sentence and paragraph levels. When readers cannot find or cannot understand the information they need, it’s usually because the information is poorly organized, poorly sequenced, or structured in confusing ways. Information Mapping is an easily learned, systematic methodology for organizing, sequencing, and presenting information so it’s easy to search and easy to understand.

Designed to meet the needs of government, Information Mapping’s new Plain Language 2.0 course goes beyond conventional “plain writing” training to help organizations follow plain writing mandates and truly realize the benefits of writing in plain language. The course includes a powerful, user-friendly software tool that greatly simplifies implementation.

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