Textual usability in government

Long form web readingEnjoy obfuscated IRS forms? You might soon be disappointed. President Obama signed The Plain Writing Act of 2010 in October, mandating that federal agencies use writing that is “clear, concise, well-organized.” The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs just released their guidance on how federal agencies should comply with the act, mandating that agencies train employees to write plainly and clearly, and designate a senior official to ensure implementation.

PlainLanguage.gov has great examples of how much plain writing can improve textual usability:

A directive from the National Marine Fisheries Service:

Before: “After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September 1997. CA/OR DGN vessel operators are required to attend Skipper Edication Workshops at annual intervals thereafter, unless that requirement is waived by NMFS. NMFS will provide sufficient advance notice to vessel operators by mail prior to convening workshops.”

After: “After notification from NMFS, vessel operators must attend a skipper education workshop before commencing fishing each fishing season.”

A training document from the Veterans Benefits Administration:

Before: “The second change in the law provides an opportunity to resume work without affecting your entitlement to compensation at the total disability rate. However, this alteration in the law does not modify the requirement that you immediately report any employment to this office.”

After: “The law now says you can go back to work without losing your ability to receive total disability compensation. You still have to let us know right away when you do go back to work.”

An NIH factsheet for the general public:

Before: DNA test for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease: Geneticists and cell biologists have exploited a neurologically impaired “pale and trembling” mouse strain, in conjunction with new genomic technologies and information from the known mouse and human chromosomal DNA sequences, to rapidly identify a mutation that causes a subtype of the Charcot-Marie-Tooth neurological disorder that affects one in 2,500 people in the United States.  Knowledge of the specific gene defect will enable development of a DNA test to confirm the diagnosis in patients and predict risk for family members.  The disorder presents with progressive arm and leg pain that that begins in early adulthood and leads to difficulty walking and manipulating objects.  The mutation in the FIG4 gene leads to a deficiency of a signaling phosphatase enzyme that is important in maintaining neurological connections in specific regions of the brain as well as in peripheral sensory and motor nerves.

After: Gene Found for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease: Charcot-Marie-Tooth disorder, one of the most common inherited neurological disorders, affects one in 2,500 people in the U.S. Its symptoms start in early adulthood and include progressive arm and leg pain that leads to difficulty walking and manipulating objects. Using a special strain of mice, new genomic technologies, and information from the mouse and human genome sequences, researchers rapidly identified a mutation that causes a subtype of the disease. Knowledge of the specific gene defect will enable development of a DNA test to confirm the diagnosis in patients and predict risk for family members.

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One thought on “Textual usability in government

  1. Most of my previous experience with “plain language” has been in the writing of informed consents for clinical trials. The rule of thumb has always been that they should be written at an 8th grade level. It’s interesting that in the “Federal Plain Language Guidleines“, they say:

    Use language your audience knows and feels comfortable with. Take your audience’s current level of knowledge into account. Don’t write for an 8th grade class if your audience is composed of PhD candidates, small business owners, working parents, or immigrants. Only write for 8th graders if your audience is, in fact, an 8th grade class.

    The challenge, of course, is that you don’t always know who your audience will be. So the writing tends to be for the lowest common denominator.

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