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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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The Plain Writing Act Part I

In 2010 the Plain Writing Act became a law. It declares that “Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly.” According to Annetta Cheek, a retired federal worker, “Government is all about telling people what to do. If you don’t write clearly, they’re not going to do it.” Wise words!

Only federal government agencies are legally bound by the Plain Writing Act. But the thinking behind the law makes sense to every government worker – including police officers.

Here’s an example from a government pamphlet written before Congress passed the Plain Writing Act:

Winter Preparedness Safety Tips Timely preparation, including structural and non-structural mitigation measures to avoid the impacts of severe winter weather, can avert heavy personal, business and government expenditures. Experts agree that the following measures can be effective in dealing with the challenges of severe winter weather.  WORDY

Now look at this Plain Writing Act rewrite:

Severe winter weather can be extremely dangerous. Consider these safety tips to protect your property and yourself.  BETTER

The advantages to government bureaucracies are obvious: Clear, simple writing minimizes confusion and saves time and money. Plain Writing guidelines make reports easier to write, read, and review – a boon to busy officers and their supervisors, especially when preparing for a court hearing.

Another advantage is that modern writing practices make a positive impression on judges, attorneys, media representatives, and community leaders who read reports.

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.

The next post will discuss three writing guidelines that many agencies have adopted. Stay tuned!

A chalkboard that has "plain language" written on it

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