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The Impact of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 on Technical Communicators

Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.

Buckley Jeppson

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010, a law that aims to make federal government writing clearer. This article summarizes the new law, briefly explains the nature of Plain Language writing, and outlines the implications for technical communicators.

Efforts to implement Plain Language into government writing started back in the Clinton Administration and were heavily evangelized by then-Vice President Al Gore, but this is the first time legislation has mandated a change in the way government communicates with the public.

The purpose of the act is “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” The law heralds a complete change in federal communications culture. From now on, clarity will be the primary objective in writing. Documents will be judged based on their simplicity, precision, and usefulness to stakeholders on all levels.

What is Plain Writing?

Plain Writing and Plain Language are the same and refer to a specific writing style and discipline. Plain Language is precise. It is not drab writing that sounds elementary and dull. It is not dumbed down or condescending. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of English. It is strong and direct rather than pretentious and weak. It is straightforward and clearly establishes chronologies, responsibility, and results. It is the opposite of legal writing that often seems meant to confuse the reader and avoid taking or assigning responsibility, credit, or blame. Plain Language concentrates on the content of the message instead of distracting writing styles. It may contain complex information, but assembled in an orderly and clear manner. Plain Language is all about being understood.

Plain Language writers use a number of methods to achieve clarity and precision. They structure documents physically for clarity by using useful headings, lists, tables, and illustrations. Good documents use active voice and concrete words familiar to the intended reader. Good Plain Language writers avoid ambiguity, omit excess verbiage, and take great care to use base verbs over nominalizations. Their documents use illustrations wisely.

Here are a couple of before-and-after examples from the Department of Transportation:


It has been demonstrated that states that have passed primary seat belt laws have achieved increased usage rates and the number of lives saved


States with primary seat belt laws show increased usage and lower fatality rates.



This is a multipurpose passenger vehicle which will handle and maneuver differently from an ordinary passenger car, in driving conditions which may occur on streets and highways and off road. As with other vehicles of this type, if you make sharp turns or abrupt maneuvers, the vehicle may roll over or may go out of control and crash. You should read driving guidelines and instructions in the Owner’s Manual, and WEAR YOUR SEAT BELTS AT ALL TIMES.


So what’s the big deal? As writers, we have always been concerned with clarity, simplicity, precision, and usefulness to our users. Most of us do not work for the federal government and are not directly subject to compliance with the new law. Some of us are already well-versed in the theory and practices of Plain Language and use the principles in our daily work. Nevertheless, the law uncovers areas of concern as well as opportunities for technical writers.

Concerns for Technical Communicators

Even if we do not work for the federal government, we need to begin the transition to Plain Language. Often, the federal government is considered to be an 800-pound gorilla that usually gets its way. State and local governments are already beginning to take a hard look at all their paper and electronic documents and their current ways of communicating to see how they will be impacted. The act covers reports, letters, publications, forms, notices, presentations, training materials, instructions, and even e-mail sent to individuals, groups, companies, or local government agencies. As the culture of Plain Language becomes more widespread in the next few years, people will become accustomed to simpler and clearer forms and instructions and more precise communications. Technical writers will soon find that their complicated and wordy documents are obsolete.

If you and your group are not currently using Plain Language, you need to start planning the transition. If you are not familiar with this new way of communicating, you may need specialized training. The need for clear communication is widespread and obvious to management, so getting good training for your staff should be a relatively easy sell. At the very least, you should become familiar with the discipline’s guidelines and best practices. The federal government’s Plain Language web site is a good place to begin your explorations. Perhaps your local STC chapter or other professional organization can bring in a guest speaker for a short training experience.

Opportunities for Technical Communicators

For freelance writers or those out of work, this new emphasis offers a new opportunity to shine. “Plain Writing” and “Plain Language” are rapidly becoming search terms for job placement firms. Writers who already use Plain Language need to emphasize their proficiency on their résumés now more than ever. Such skills could give someone an edge over other candidates. Honing those skills could provide a fresh direction for a career.

Many writers and managers are also trainers, and the move to Plain Language opens up another world of training possibilities. Recognizing that for most federal workers this is a completely new way of communicating, the government is scrambling to organize training. Some state and local governments have already begun the transition and private industry will be close behind. This especially opens an additional gateway for the self-employed writer, who is able to move quickly to take advantage of the new training niche.

The outlook for editors is also positive. All new documents and new versions of changed legacy documents must comply with the guidelines. Editors who present themselves as viable alternatives to hiring new staff should find plenty of work.

Those of us who already understand and use Plain Language—especially those who work as trainers—are uniquely situated to help our companies learn these new skills. It’s time to take the initiative to put together a good presentation and prepare a curriculum and student materials that meet federal standards. There is no better way to demonstrate value than to be ahead of the curve.


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About the Author

Buckley Jeppson
Buckley Jeppson

After years of supervising documentation teams, Buckley Jeppson now works as an independent information analyst and trainer. Based in Portland, Oregon, he helps organizations and government agencies understand their users’ needs and works with them to organize their information assets to align with those needs.

Buck has been involved with the Plain Language community for several years and trains government agencies in implementation of the new Plain Writing law. He is a regular contributor to information design blogs and publications.

You can follow Buck on Facebook or Twitter.

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