Thursday, June 7, 2012

Writing simply and clearly - brief and detailed advice

On May 21st Lee Drutman blogged about The changing complexity of Congressional speech. His post opened by stating that:

“Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago, with the most conservative members of Congress speaking on average at the lowest grade level, according to a new Sunlight Foundation analysis of the Congressional Record using Capitol Words.

Of course, what some might interpret as a dumbing down of Congress, others will see as more effective communications. And lawmakers of both parties still speak above the heads of the average American, who reads at  between an 8th and 9th grade level.

Today’s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level, and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. The Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2 grade level and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is at a 9.4 grade level.”

In her Eloquent Woman blog on May 30th Denise Graveline commented by asking Does simple = stupid in speaking? Why Congress’s report card isn’t bad.

Two years ago at Psychology Today Norman Holland blogged about 3 simple rules for writing that match the human brain. They were to:

1. Use the simplest word that will do the job.

2. Use the simplest sentence structure that will do the job.

3. Use active verbs.

Congress passed Public Law 111-274, the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which directed Federal agencies to use:

“...writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.”

There is a Plain Language web site. One example there starts as:

“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.”

That sentence could be more plainly said as:

“If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.”

Detailed advice appears in a Guidelines document that can be downloaded as either an Acrobat pdf file (118 pages) or a  MS Word file.

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