Sunday, October 17, 2010

Obama signs Plain Writing Act of 2010

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 (the Act) was signed by President Barack Obama on October 13, 2010.

The purpose of the Act is
"to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use."

The Act applies to “covered documents”, which are defined as including:
• documents necessary for getting any Federal benefit or service, or for filing taxes,
• any document that provides information about any benefit or service provided by the Federal government, and
• any document that explains to the public how to comply with a requirement the Federal government administers or enforces.

The Act applies to letters, publications, forms, notices, and instructions, but does not apply to regulations. (Ironically, because of the way the Act is structured (in particular, subsection 3(2)) it’s a bit tricky to figure out that there’s an exception for regulations. The exception could have been expressed in a clearer – plainer – way, but never mind.)

So what is plain writing? The Act basically defines it as writing that's clear, concise, well-organized and appropriate to the intended audience (something I usually refer to as “reader-focused writing”).

Federal agencies have nine months to prepare and implement a number of plain writing requirements, including training their employees in plain writing and creating a plain writing section of their website. By October 13, 2011 (one year from the date the Act was signed by the President) Federal agencies must use plain writing on all “covered documents” they issue or substantially revise.

As a plain language consultant and advocate, I’m thrilled about the Act because it is recognition of both the importance of plain language, and the need for it. As a citizen, I cheer the U.S. government’s efforts at making their communications understandable. Though the Act only applies to documents created by Federal agencies, I have to believe that companies and organizations in the private sector will see the benefit and will hop on the bandwagon.