An awards ceremony was recently held at the National Press Club, but you probably missed it. It wasn’t heralding the latest movie, song or television show, it was, instead, focused on something far more important and often overlooked: plain writing.

For some time now, I’ve encouraged our clients, friends– and even my kids– to toss aside tired phrases and words that obscure meaning when simply using clear, concise language would be more effective. It’s long been known that using long words makes text harder to read (obviously!) but there have been research studies that suggest using them makes the author seem stupid to the reader. Which is really sad, considering that most people pepper their prose with long words in an effort to sound smarter.

If you’re interested in reading the report, ironically titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” you can download it here.

As a result, perhaps the best advice to give any writer is to use short words. Regardless of what you’re writing, whether it’s a sales letter, blog post, company history, or proposal, this should be considered the golden rule of clear communication. So it was, with this thought in mind, that Annetta Cheek started the Center for Plain Language. Originally created by some government employees who had grown frustrated by the verbose writing so often found in government-generated documents, the Center’s goal is to “get government and businesses to communicate more clearly with citizens and customers.”

To help with this effort, the Center has four main goals to support plain writing: They advocate for people to use, learn, and teach plain language; they give people information and tools to improve their use of plain language; they do and share research that identifies best practices; and they coordinate activities like their annual symposium and awards program to help people know more about and use plain language. In other words, they’d like us all to communicate more effectively, and they’re helping make that happen.

Their web site is the central clearing house for all of this information. There you can find several resources for improving your writing skills, including key articles that describe the benefits of plain language, outline a plan for integrating it into your organization, and – my favorite – “The 10 commandments of simplification.”

In addition, the Center holds their annual awards ceremony highlighting the best and worst communicators. Called the ClearMark (for the best) and WonderMark (for the worst, so named because the judges were often left wondering what the writers were thinking), these awards are intended to bring attention to the uses of plain and obscure writing. Entries for the awards were nominated by the public and judged by a panel of experts. After a recent interview on National Public Radio, the site posted several examples of entries in the contest. You can see them on the NPR web site.

But I should warn you, reading through some of these can be tedious, like this entry from the National Parks Service: “When the process of freeing a stuck 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.” (In other words, if you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill it.)

Even worse was Department of Homeland Security’s “I-94W Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Record Instructions”. Called “confusing, arcane, bureaucratic, bizarre and downright offensive” by the nominator, this small green form included statements like “An agency may not conduct or sponsor an information collection and a person is not required to respond to this information unless it displays a current valid OMB control number.” It also asks some very pointed questions like:

  • “Have you ever been involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide…” and
  • “Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude…” and
  • “Do you have a communicable disease?”

Keep in mind that this form is intended to be completed by foreigners immediately upon entry into the country and they are instructed to “Type or print legibly…” I can’t remember the last time I saw a bunch of tourists traveling with typewriters, let alone an English translation dictionary capable of dealing with that ‘moral turpitude’ issue.

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