Monday, January 27, 2014

The Plain Writing Act of 2010: Lessons for Industry

FDA and other federal agencies are bound by the Plain Writing Act of 2010 to use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”  It seems ridiculous that we’d need legislation for such a thing, since “understandable” and “useful” are such obvious and fundamental attributes of communication.  There’s even a companion document, the 118-page Federal Plain Language Guidelines (FPLG).

Be us not, in industry, too smug.

First, the FPLG is a surprisingly good reference, categorizing more than 50 enemies of written clarity, and deftly demonstrating how to avoid them.  Second, like many of you, I spend a lot of time reading all matter of industry writing – procedures, reports, publications, and promotional material.  Some of it is good, even excellent.  But let’s face it, too often our writing is to information what candy corn is to nutrition.  Calling it written communication is a stretch at best; it may be written, but it really isn’t communicating anything.  If all writers in our industry were to adhere to the principles in the FPLG, it would do a lot to improve our collective condition.

You know what I’m talking about.  It’s bad out there.  (Do I hear a “How bad is it?”)

It’s so bad that if Abraham Lincoln were to hire a team of contemporary business writers to craft his corporate mission statement, the “About Us” tab of his website might read:
Eighty seven years ago our predecessors began the building of a framework for the implementation of a cutting edge leadership approach, with dedication to the assurance of enhanced outcomes for all stakeholders on a going forward basis.  To realize the full potential of the new paradigm, we must excel in the management of conflict, the confrontation of challenges, the utilization of synergies, and the mitigation of risk as we transition from beta test to full-scale production.  Today, we make a commitment to ensure that this distributed, self-directed management model will, at the end of the day, achieve success in terms of long-term viability. **
Thanks to a mine field of modern jargon, the eloquent address that Lincoln delivered at the Gettysburg battleground has been robbed of both meaning and beauty.  Active, image-evoking verbs have been replaced by a tedious army of buzz nouns.  There’s no movement in the passage; the language is dead.  (See pg 29 of the FPLG.)

Picking on America’s founding fathers this close to Presidents’ Day is not very polite, so let’s fast forward and have a look at some current-day, de-identified promotional material. 
We at <<company name>> strive to understand our clients’ needs and preferences. There are often several contributing factors to what constitutes the “right” solution to a problem. We have developed tools to clearly and concisely communicate the issues along with the advantages and disadvantages of various options. Our history of working on thousands of projects across the country has enabled us to hone our communication skills, tailoring them to the audience, whether it consists of technical or non-technical individuals. Owners, operators, contractors, equipment manufacturers, energy managers, code officials, fellow professionals, and countless others have expressed appreciation for our ability to identify contributing factors, and orchestrate a consensus-based solution.
That sounds swell, but what do you DO?  I’m pretty sure the content writers weren’t trying to keep that information from us, but they got so tangled up in industry jargon, they forgot that telling us what they could do for us was actually the bloody point.  These writers could have benefited from the advice in FPLG, Section I.

(Sometimes, of course, writers use gibberish deliberately to obscure meaning.  When the I-5 bridge outside of Seattle collapsed last year, the Federal Highway Administration inscrutably reported that the bridge was found to be "somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is."  Wow.  Thank heavens the only fatality of the collapse was the English language.)

OK, so we’ve had a little fun at the expense of other professions.  Now it’s time to look in the mirror.

From the Scope section of a Disaster Recovery SOP:
This document applies to all employees when the company infrastructure is significantly impacted by a disaster and is no longer available, impacting business continuity.  The scope is to identify critical resources and business functions in the event of disaster.  This document also identifies risk mitigation actions to prevent issues when possible.
(See FPLG, pg 46.)
From an unnamed, oft-quoted industry guide:
This environment requires both complete product and process understanding and that the critical process parameters can be accurately and reliably predicted and controlled over the design space.  In such a case, the fitness for intended use of the computer system within the process may be adequately demonstrated by documented engineering or project activities together with subsequent process validation or continuous quality verification of the overall process or system.
(See FPLG, pg 50, or better yet, pgs 1 – 118.)
Are your eyes bleeding yet?  I’m not trying to pick on these well-meaning authors; they’re in excellent company.  Communicating complex concepts is difficult, and it’s much harder to find examples of it being done effectively than it is to find examples that fall short of the mark.

So why do we do this?  Are we exacting revenge on readers we assume to have written some awful piece of documentation that we were once required to read?  (Doubtful, but you never know.)  Are we actually trying to obscure meaning because saying nothing is either easier or less risky than actually saying something?  (Sometimes.)  Is writing in the sciences an undervalued skill?  (Often.)  Whatever the underlying root causes, there’s no denying that corporate-speak is everywhere; it’s in the news, on the web, and in every industry.  We’re all so used to hearing and reading the industry argot, it’s only natural we’d repeat it when we write.

I live and work in this world, so I’m not innocent.  When I’m being lazy or I’m pressed for time, I can feel my writing  begin to conform to that vapid, staccato cadence with which we’re so familiar.  So I’m making a new year’s resolution to do better.  From now on, I promise to run my work through a jargon filter, leaving words like “operationalization” to people who know how to use them.  I vow to use my verbs more, resisting the temptation to say “perform the analysis” when a simple “analyze” would do.  And during sporting events, I will immediately mute my TV the first time I hear the team that’s winning described as “performing comparatively better in terms of points on the board.”

So tell us - what words or phrases are you sick of?

By Laurie Meehan

** Rewriting the Gettysburg Address in consultant-speak wasn’t my idea.  I borrowed the idea, and a few of the words, from Don Watson who wrote a book called “Death Sentences – How Cliches, Weasel Words, and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language.”  (He actually got the idea from columnist Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter.)  The book is an excellent, funny, instructive read.



  1. "going forward", "at the end of the day", "pain points"

    1. This post allowed me to get a lot out of my system, but I didn't have room for all of the offenders. "It is what it is" has been bugging me lately. Thanks for contributing!

  2. Very informative! I also "had a good laugh!" about some of your examples. Excuse me; "I laughed!"

  3. I always cringe when I hear "thinking out of the box" (but thankfully I don't see this often in written form).

    It's interesting that you write about this subject (of writing) precisely when I find myself having to review SOPs where the Scope section says nothing about the scope, the Purpose section says nothing about the purpose, and the Procedure (body) leaves me wondering how the company's staff can repeatably and consistently carry-out the tasks at hand. I would be the first to admit that my own technical writing could stand a few improvements, and I plan to have a quick 'look-see' at the FPLG myself. (Hopefully the technical writers and 'quality' reviewers of our regulated industry will do the same).

    1. Ooh, the proverbial box. That's a good one!

      You know, yours is the 3rd comment I received that has remarked on the coincidental timing of this post -- that it arrived right in the middle of a writing or reviewing project. I think it's that we all do so much reading and writing, so any time is a good time to step back a bit from the language we're so used to. Even when we try hard to filter out the jargon, it's so easy to lapse! And of course, with this post, I'd better be extra careful. I think I might have painted a target on myself :-)

  4. "At the end of the day" (cringe), excellent points, all of them. Now, can you imagine being tasked with translating such remarkable content into another language, or sometimes dozens of languages which we may be asked to do? The GIGO concept takes on "awesome" (double cringe) proportions!

  5. Translating corporate buzz phrases? I don't envy you THAT job. How do you translate "ideate"?

    Thanks for your comments, Duncan.

  6. His ability to assess the impact of government policy and its relationship to community and market expectations has assisted clients and investors maximise their returns in complex property transactions.
    Ben Cass , Benjamin Cass

    1. That *is* a mouthful. I guess if you're engaged in "complex property transactions," with all those long legal documents, you'd be *looking* for an expert in exhausting language.
      Thanks for sharing!

  7. What a great blog! I'm in the process of choosing translations for a hardcopy of Les Miserables, and came across this delightful tidbit in a New Yorker blog:

    "Each year, the British historian John Julius Norwich publishes a “Christmas Cracker,” a commonplace book full of fragments of funny reading from the pas twelve months; for 2012, he includes Gerry Hanson pointing out that, while the Lord’s Prayer contains sixty-nine words, and the Declaration of Independence two hundred and ninety-seven, an E.U. directive on duck eggs contains twenty-eight thousand nine hundred and eleven words."

  8. Thanks, Jamie!
    Hanson's observation reminds me of "I apologize for the length of this letter; I did not have time to write a shorter one." (Attributed to everyone from Blaise Pascal to Mark Twain!)

  9. You all absolutely MUST see this video (especially the "corporate buzzwords" starting at 01:25:00).

  10. Ridiculous story there. What happened after? Thanks!

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