Certain moments in history have been greatly impactful on readability standards. In the U.S., Obama passing the Plain Writing Act was a significant landmark in the history of clarity campaigning. 

What is the Plain Writing Act?

The Plain Writing Act is a United States federal law. It was signed into law in October 2010 by Barack Obama. It requires federal agencies to write “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”

What are the requirements of the Plain Writing Act? 

It requires the head of each executive agency to:

  • Appoint at least one senior official in the agency to oversee the implementation
  • Make sure the standards are communicated with all employees
  • Conduct plain language training. This includes keeping the intended audience in mind, and writing clearly and concisely 
  • Make sure compliance with the Act is ongoing 
  • Have a plain writing section on the agency’s website which is accessible to the public and open to feedback
  • Appoint staff to respond to feedback on plain writing 

The Act was ambitious in that it had a clear one-year deadline to substantially edit significant documents. Named ‘covered documents’, the documents were any necessary documentation related to benefits, services and tax. It also included educational documents for the public about complying with federal government requirements. This excluded regulation documents, but covered a large volume of writing. 

In addition, six months after the enactment, guidance on how to implement the Act had to be developed and issued. This made sure everyone was on the same page. 

What are the official writing guidelines for the act?

The guidelines provided by plainlanguagegov are: 

  • Write for your audience
      • Who is my audience?
      • What does my audience already know about the subject?
      • What does my audience need to know?
      • What questions will my audience have?
      • What’s the best outcome for my agency? What do I need to say to get this outcome?
      • What’s the best outcome for our audience? What do I need to say to get this outcome?
  • Organize the information
      • Put the most important information at the beginning and include background information (when necessary) toward the end
  • Choose your words carefully
      • Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched
      • Prefer the concrete word to the abstraction
      • Prefer the single word to the circumlocution
      • Prefer the short word to the long
      • Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance word
  • Be concise
      • Challenge every word
      • Pronouns, active voice, and base verbs help eliminate excess words
      • Don’t use excessive prepositions
  • Keep it conversational
      • Using plenty of verbs gives the information more direction for the reader
  • Design for reading
      • Use bold for emphasis (not underlining)
      • Use italics for parenthetical information, like citations of laws
      • Use readable typography 
      • Use bullet points
      • Break up the information 
  • Follow web standards
      • Put the most important information at the top (the inverted pyramid style of writing)
      • Use headings
      • Only use the necessary information
      • Make sure the user can find what they need 
  • Test your assumptions
    • Usability testing
    • Focus groups

What was the impact of the Plain Writing Act?

The Act emphasised that the burden of clarity is on the writer,  not the reader. The citizen has the right to understand what the government tells them. No longer is readability a proofreading step quickly tacked on at the end of the writing process. Now, it’s integral to the federal writing style in the U.S. 

There is a report card that grades federal performance for readability across all departments. This is to ensure compliance across the board. Rather than website information encouraging agencies to use plain language, the website now contains clear guidelines on how to comply with the Act. 

The community of plain language trainers and advocates has, as a result of the Act, grown not only across the United States but globally. 

The Act has also, no doubt, had an impact on political communication. With a general trend toward congresspeople now talking to the public as well as to each other, grade levels are decreasing. 

The same goes for anyone running for president. Speechwriters are clearly looking at the clarity of their language, as well as: sentiment, tone, and keyword density, among other devices. This is to complement their rhetorical skills. For example, Biden’s 2020 victory speech scored a Readable grade A.

What can we learn from this?

The guidelines stated by plainlanguagegov are not only useful for federal writing, but for all kinds of communication. The “audience first” approach should be at the forefront of every writer’s mind. But, attending to each item on the guidelines can add a lot of time to your proofreading process. 

By using Readable, you can have a second pair of eyes on your writing. We’ll let you know where you can use a more active voice, what tone you’re using, how conversational you are, how readable your writing is, and so much more. By running your text through Readable, you can systematically work through any issues in your text and see it transform. 

Laura Kelly

Laura is a freelance writer and worked at Readable for a number of years. Laura is well-versed in optimising content for readability and Readable's suite of tools. She aims to write guides that help you make the most out of Readable.