Course Outcomes

This plain-language course will:

  • Outline a writer’s obligations under the Plain Writing Act.
  • Explain the Federal Plain Language Guidelines.
  • Explain what plain language is and is not.
  • Describe how writers should handle multiple audiences.
  • Review plain language guidelines for using verbs, nouns, and pronouns.
  • Outline other rules related to word use: using short words, omitting unneeded words, and avoiding jargon.
  • Share guidance to improve a document’s understandability on a sentence and paragraph level.
  • Introduce such tools as lists, examples, and illustrations to aid a document’s clarity.
  • Offer information specific to writing for the web.

Course Overview

For years, government writers have produced long and hard-to-read documents that confused the public.  In fact, at one point the situation had become so bad that someone said, “a legislation ought to be written to prevent this from happening,” and it was.  President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 in October of that year.  Under this law, writers working in federal agencies now have an obligation to communicate information in a way the public can understand and use.  In March of 2011, the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) published its latest version of The Federal Plain Language Guidelines.   This 118-page document explains how to use plain language and is the primary text for this course.

Program Objectives

At this program’s conclusion, participants should be able to:

  • Explain their obligations under the Plain Writing Act.
  • Write with their audience in mind.
  • Organize information so it is easily understood.
  • Recognize and use the active voice.
  • Avoid hidden verbs.
  • Reduce wordiness.
  • Choose short words in favor of their longer synonyms.
  • Limit sentence length.
  • Use headings, bullets, and other tools to increase a document’s readability.

The following outline highlights some of the course’s key learning points. As part of your training program, we will modify content as needed to meet your business objectives. Upon request, we will provide you with a copy of the participant materials prior to the session(s).

Workshop Outline 

How Did I Get Here: The Plain Writing Act

This program starts with a brief history of the Plain Writing Act and its purpose.  Participants will explore what plain language is and isn’t.  In particular, they will understand plain language doesn’t mean dumbing down information.  Rather, its goal is to increase the speed at which people can read a text while at the same time removing any confusion around what is read.

The Audience: Writing for Different People

When discreet audiences exist, so does a need for separate texts.  Government writers often find themselves in trouble when they attempt to meet the needs of many readers simultaneously. In this part of the program, we will review the importance of speaking to one group at a time and using subheadings, sections, or entirely separate documents to achieve that purpose.

Verb, That’s What’s Happening: Using Action Words

The people at Schoolhouse Rock got it right when they wrote a song that told kids watching television on Saturday morning that verbs were what’s happening.  Although the tune has aged, its timeless message remains true.  This segment explores the power of verbs and how writers can leverage them to add power to their texts.  First, we will discuss the active versus passive voice.  Next, we will explain the value of the present tense and how its use can contribute to a document’s clarity.  Following that discussion, we will examine hidden verbs and how they can sneak into a document and weaken it. Throughout this segment, course participants will practice the skills they learn by transforming “governmentees” into plain language.

Nouns and Pronouns: Choosing Wisely

Government writers often favor strings of nouns when one or two do could do the job and do it better. This part of the program begins with a discussion about this idea.  Next, participants will talk about the value of pronouns and how writers can use them to help their readers connect with and understand information.  Finally, we will look at how abbreviations, acronyms, and jargon destroy a piece of writing if their use is not kept in check.  Similar to the previous segment, participants will transform several ugly sentences to practice the concepts introduced in this part of the program.

Escaping the 50-Pound Sentence: Short Wins in the Long Run

A sentence shouldn’t feel like a life sentence to the person reading it.  In this part of the training, we will demonstrate how long sentences confuse a reader.  Following that discussion, we will explain the value of short sentences and how their use will positively affect a document’s readability.  We will conclude this part of the program with a review of several guidelines related to word order and choices writers can make to simplify their texts.

Paragraph Power: Creating Logical Chunks

Size matters in plain language, and if your paragraphs are too long your readers will have difficulty understanding them, misunderstand them, or quit reading altogether.  This part of the workshop examines length and other issues related to creating strong understandable paragraphs. 

Show and Tell: Using Illustration and Other Visual Aids

There’s a reason people say a picture is worth a thousand words.  Illustrations, photos, charts, and graphs communicate information differently than words alone.  During this part of the workshop participants will participate in one of Business Training Works’ signature exercises designed specifically to make this point.

The Trap-Free Web: Writing for the Internet

Our final seminar segment touches on dos and don’ts for writing online documents.  In this part of the program, we will show participants how web reading differs from other types of reading.  Then with that information, group members will consider changes they as writers would make to a traditional publication to prepare it for use online.

At the program’s conclusion, participants should have a clear understanding of plain language and how to use it at work.