Article | January 31, 2014

The Plain Writing Act of 2010: Lessons for Industry


By Laurie Meehan, Polaris Compliance Consultants, Inc.

FDA and other federal agencies are bound by the Plain Writing Act of 2010 to use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”  It seems ridiculous that we’d need legislation for such a thing, since “understandable” and “useful” are such obvious and fundamental attributes of communication.  There’s even a companion document, the 118-page Federal Plain Language Guidelines (FPLG).

Be us not, in industry, too smug.

First, the FPLG is a surprisingly good reference, categorizing more than 50 enemies of written clarity, and deftly demonstrating how to avoid them.  Second, like many of you, I spend a lot of time reading all matter of industry writing – procedures, reports, publications, and promotional material.  Some of it is good, even excellent.  But let’s face it, too often our writing is to information what candy corn is to nutrition.  Calling it written communication is a stretch at best; it may be written, but it really isn’t communicating anything.  If all writers in our industry were to adhere to the principles in the FPLG, it would do a lot to improve our collective condition.

You know what I’m talking about.  It’s bad out there.  (Do I hear a “How bad is it?”)

It’s so bad that if Abraham Lincoln were to hire a team of contemporary business writers to craft his corporate mission statement, the “About Us” tab of his website might read:

“Eighty seven years ago our predecessors began the building of a framework for the implementation of a cutting edge leadership approach, with dedication to the assurance of enhanced outcomes for all stakeholders on a going forward basis.  To realize the full potential of the new paradigm, we must excel in the management of conflict, the confrontation of challenges, the utilization of synergies, and the mitigation of risk as we transition from beta test to full-scale production.  Today, we make a commitment to ensure that this distributed, self-directed management model will, at the end of the day, achieve success in terms of long-term viability.” **

Thanks to a minefield of modern jargon, the eloquent address that Lincoln delivered at the Gettysburg battleground has been robbed of both meaning and beauty.  Active, image-evoking verbs have been replaced by a tedious army of buzz nouns.  There’s no movement in the passage; the language is dead.  (See page 29 of the FPLG.)

Picking on America’s founding fathers this close to Presidents’ Day is not very polite, so let’s fast forward and have a look at some current-day, de-identified promotional material. 

“We at <> strive to understand our clients’ needs and preferences. There are often several contributing factors to what constitutes the “right” solution to a problem. We have developed tools to clearly and concisely communicate the issues along with the advantages and disadvantages of various options. Our history of working on thousands of projects across the country has enabled us to hone our communication skills, tailoring them to the audience, whether it consists of technical or nontechnical individuals. Owners, operators, contractors, equipment manufacturers, energy managers, code officials, fellow professionals, and countless others have expressed appreciation for our ability to identify contributing factors and orchestrate a consensus-based solution.”

That sounds swell, but what do you DO?  I’m pretty sure the content writers weren’t trying to keep that information from us, but they got so tangled up in industry jargon, they forgot that telling us what they could do for us was actually the bloody point.  These writers could have benefited from the advice in FPLG, Section I.

(Sometimes, of course, writers use gibberish deliberately to obscure meaning.  When the I-5 bridge outside of Seattle collapsed last year, the Federal Highway Administration inscrutably reported that the bridge was found to be "somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is."  Wow.  Thank heavens the only fatality of the collapse was the English language.)

OK, so we’ve had a little fun at the expense of other professions.  Now it’s time to look in the mirror.

From the Scope section of a Disaster Recovery SOP:

“This document applies to all employees when the company infrastructure is significantly impacted by a disaster and is no longer available, impacting business continuity.  The scope is to identify critical resources and business functions in the event of disaster.  This document also identifies risk mitigation actions to prevent issues when possible.”
(See FPLG, pg 46.)

From an unnamed, oft-quoted industry guide:

“This environment requires both complete product and process understanding and that the critical process parameters can be accurately and reliably predicted and controlled over the design space.  In such a case, the fitness for intended use of the computer system within the process may be adequately demonstrated by documented engineering or project activities together with subsequent process validation or continuous quality verification of the overall process or system.”
(See FPLG, pg 50, or better yet, pgs 1 – 118.)

Are your eyes bleeding yet?  I’m not trying to pick on these well-meaning authors; they’re in excellent company.  Communicating complex concepts is difficult, and it’s much harder to find examples of it being done effectively than it is to find examples that fall short of the mark.

So why do we do this?  Are we exacting revenge on readers we assume to have written some awful piece of documentation that we were once required to read?  (Doubtful, but you never know.)  Are we actually trying to obscure meaning because saying nothing is either easier or less risky than actually saying something?  (Sometimes.)  Is writing in the sciences an undervalued skill?  (Often.)  Whatever the underlying root causes, there’s no denying that corporate-speak is everywhere; it’s in the news, on the web, and in every industry.  We’re all so used to hearing and reading the industry argot, it’s only natural we’d repeat it when we write.

I live and work in this world, so I’m not innocent.  When I’m being lazy or I’m pressed for time, I can feel my writing  begin to conform to that vapid, staccato cadence with which we’re so familiar.  So I’m making a new year’s resolution to do better.  From now on, I promise to run my work through a jargon filter, leaving words like “operationalization” to people who know how to use them.  I vow to use my verbs more, resisting the temptation to say “perform the analysis” when a simple “analyze” would do.  And during sporting events, I will immediately mute my TV the first time I hear the team that’s winning described as “performing comparatively better in terms of points on the board.”

So tell us - what words or phrases are you sick of?

By Laurie Meehan

** Rewriting the Gettysburg Address in consultant-speak wasn’t my idea.  I borrowed the idea, and a few of the words, from Don Watson who wrote a book called “Death Sentences – How Cliches, Weasel Words, and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language.”  (He actually got the idea from columnist Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter.)  The book is an excellent, funny, instructive read.