Sunday, June 17, 2012

Plain Writing Act of 2010

I was asked to put together a presentation for senior staff on the agency's obligations under the Plain Writing Act of 2010.  It basically requires the government to write documents for public consumption that the public can actually consume.  Emphasis is placed on short, easy-to-read sentences and friendly, what-up-girl phrasing.

I enjoy this Act so much for its straight-faced irony.  It uses ten (or fifty) words to say what could be said in five.  It refers back to other paragraphs in the same document (forcing you to go back and reread) instead of just telling to what you need to know.  In addition, there is a six page guidance from OMB referring to a 118 page guidance from the PLAIN Committee tasked with implementing this plan.

Here is my favorite piece of guidance demonstrating the way to write more clearly (version 2 is supposed to be the correct version):

Oh, sentences ending in a preposition.  You just can't make this stuff up.*

Anyhoo . . . In order to create my presentation for senior staff, I looked up my agency's point-person for implementing the Act.  I drafted a nice email (making sure it was in plain language) asking for information I could use.  Reread it for content.  Ran spell check.  Sent it off to the correct person.

And as I hit send, my short little intern life flashed before my eyes.  I had just committed a grievous error and I realized it too late.

The point person for these types of things is usually a VERY high level person, but the actual work is usually handled by their staff.  That's why there is often a general email address associated with government actions like this one.  So basically, an intern (read: me) sent a polite yet rather inappropriate email to a very high level individual.  Whoops.

I called her staffer: "Um, I'm an intern and I messed up"

"How much did you mess up?"

"Only a little bit."

"Oh, do tell."

"I sent and email to [the official].  Can you fix my mistake for me, dear sir?"

And the staffer thrice pounded his head on his desk and thought so loudly to himself that I could hear it resonate from his brain through the phone, "God, I hate intern season."**

*Actually, my dad and I get in fights over this grammar rule fairly frequently (yes, my family is strange).  The Grammar Girl clarifies when it is ok to end a sentence with a preposition.  I would argue that this is not one of those time.

**And then he did, indeed, fix my mistake and send me some very informative materials.  And was totally pleasant doing it.  Thanks, dear sir!

No comments: