The Plain Writing Act Part 2

In my previous post, I talked about the Plain Writing Act of 2010. All federal employees are required to write government documents in everyday language. Although police departments aren’t bound by this law, it makes sense to write plainly and clearly.

Today I’m going to offer three tips for writing plainly, clearly, and efficiently.

1.  Use ordinary language rather than jargon. For example, when a citizen gives you information, “said” or “told” is a better word choice than “advised,” which should be saved for actual advice:

Johnson told me she locked the door before she went to bed.  CORRECT

I advised Wilson to discuss her son’s behavior with the school guidance counselor.  CORRECT

Similarly, “I saw” or “I heard” is a better choice than “I ascertained,” which doesn’t document how you acquired the information. Time-wasting and awkward words like “respective,” “above mentioned,” and “being that” can often be replaced with timesaving word choices—or eliminated altogether:

Jones and Chumley returned to their respective offices and then came back with the registration numbers.  WORDY

Jones and Chumley returned to their offices and then came back with the registration numbers.  BETTER

The abovementioned witness said she called 911 because she feared that Faulkner would seriously harm his wife.  AWKWARD

Zoe Collins said she called 911 because she feared that Faulkner would seriously harm his wife.  BETTER

Being that Todd’s shirt was covered with blood, I called for an ambulance.  AWKWARD

Because Todd’s shirt was covered with blood, I called for an ambulance.  BETTER

2.  Use active voice rather than passive voice. In the past, some officers mistakenly believed that passive voice guaranteed objectivity and integrity. Not true! Similarly, writing “this officer” or “the undersigned” does not ensure accuracy. (If only life were that simple!)

Smoke was detected inside the bathroom.  UNCLEAR

I smelled smoke as I walked past the open bathroom door.  BETTER

3.   Be specific. Details and descriptions are often much more useful than vague generalizations:

Lafferty took an aggressive stance and tried to intimidate me with coercive gestures and threats.  VAGUE

Lafferty stepped in front of me.  He raised his right fist to my face and said, “I’m done with you messing with us. Leave us alone.” BETTER

The Plain Writing Act is good news for busy government workers, even those not whose jobs aren’t covered by the new guidelines. You can learn more about Plain Writing at www.PlainLanguage.gov. A chalkboard that has "plain language" written on it

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