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Guest Vern Edwards

The Plain Writing Act of 2010

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Guest Vern Edwards

You will all be happy to learn that the president has signed The Plain Writing Act of 2010. The email that I got from the Office of the Federal Register gave the public law number as 111-274 (H.R. 946). The statute defines "plain writing" as follows:

The term ??plain writing?? means writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.

The heart of the three page law is this:

Beginning not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, each agency shall use plain writing in every covered document of the agency that the agency issues or substantially revises.

The law defines "covered document" as follows:

The term ??covered document???

(A) means any document that?

(i) is necessary for obtaining any Federal Government benefit or service or filing taxes;

(ii) provides information about any Federal Government benefit or service; or

(iii) explains to the public how to comply with a requirement the Federal Government administers or enforces;

(B) includes (whether in paper or electronic form) a letter, publication, form, notice, or instruction; and

( C) does not include a regulation.

My interpretation is that internal policy memos are not covered, so it's okay for them to continue to be vague, wordy, and disorganized, like DoD Under Secretary Carter's DOD 17-page memo about acquisition reform. I suppose that letters and emails from COs and CORs might be included by virtue of (A)(iii) and (B). I doubt that contracts are included, but the definition is broad, so who knows? But thanks to , you cannot expect improvement in the FAR and agency supplements.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the training will cost about $5 million per year. The CBO obviously hasn't read Under Secretary Carter's memo.

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Section 4(a)(1)© provides the head of the agency shall train employees of the agency in plain writing. As I am an agency employee, I'm sure this forum's readers will eventually benefit.

Thank goodness for section 7, which makes clear the Act creates no right or benefit enforceable by any administrative or judicial action.

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In my office I have a copy of the old standard British government style manual, "The Complete Plain Words," by Sir Ernest Gowers.

Unfortunately, somebody borrowed and failed to return my copy of Stunk & White's "Elements of Style." Often criticized for lack of charm but seldom equaled for clarity, for business writing it's hard to beat. My favorite paragraph:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." Professor William Strunk, Cornell University

It is certainly a relief that with the new legislation we can all look forward to less bureaucratese and more plain English.

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It is certainly a relief that with the new legislation we can all look forward to less bureaucratese and more plain English.

Just as we have Truth in our Negotiations, Competition in our Contracting, and Integrity in our Procurements. No problem is too big or too small that can't be solved just by telling folks to do better.

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I wonder if this piece of legislation would have been better suited had it been enacted prior the "Paper Reduction Act?" Perhaps it will force the latter to be more successful??? Just joking!

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