The Minnesota Department of Revenue made a triumphant announcement the other day, and it wasn’t about arresting someone for tax evasion.
Its publicity campaign for taxpayers to use direct deposit for refunds had won a notable distinction: People could actually understand it.
Every year, the Center for Plain Language distributes its ClearMark awards to government agencies, corporations and nonprofits for “the best plain language communication written for consumers.”
It warms this English major’s heart to know there’s something called the Center for Plain Language. I felt even more encouraged after talking to the center’s chairwoman, Susan Kleimann, a communications consultant in the Washington, D.C., area.
Kleimann believes that plain language is on the march. Every year, the center — a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization — gives a report card to federal agencies based on the extent of literary butchery and jargon. “We’re actually seeing an improvement in the overall writing,” she said.
Could it be the power of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, passed by Congress that year and signed by President Obama? The law directs all federal agencies to write anything intended for regular people in a way that’s comprehensible.
Everything else feels like it’s going wrong in Washington, but we’re winning the war against gobbledygook.
In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton issued his own plain language executive order in 2014.
His tax agency still has to issue notices with names like “Reissuing uncashed lapsed warrants.” But when it comes to educating consumers about how to get their money back, rather than handing it over, the Revenue Department brought home a ClearMark honor. One example: “Want a faster tax refund? Choose Direct Deposit: No worries!” The campaign’s one-minute Web video and text “didn’t waste the readers’ time with excess info,” one judge commented.
Second place in the multimedia-short category: the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s “No trespassing” campaign to discourage children from exploring abandoned buildings.
The center also gives awards for “gruesome” writing (that’s Kleimann’s word). A 47-word road sign. Unintelligible hospital discharge instructions. A hot sauce bottle with the slogan: “Quality is not an option.”
I asked Kleimann who’s responsible for the execrable prose that’s being inflicted on the public. She said one factor is English teachers urging students to use big words and avoid repeating words, and the necessity of writing to a certain length.
(I shudder to think what writing would look like without English teachers, but I’m just reporting what Kleimann said.)
Other factors: The influence of academic-style writing learned in universities. The need for workers to parrot workplace jargon. And the big one: lawyers, and the inclusion of so much detail that the meaning is “choked out of the prose.”
I suggested to Kleimann that some corporations and government agencies do not want anyone to read what they produce. She acknowledged that in some cases that’s true.
But she pointed out that volunteers worked with Chase bank to improve one of the most reader-hostile documents around: the terms and conditions you get whenever you sign up for a credit card.
And the center helped the Philadelphia transit agency improve the puzzling emergency evacuation instructions for its trains.
It’s more evidence that plain language saves lives, not just money.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.