Here is an annual story I always enjoy: the award for plainness in writing emanating from the federal government.
Thanks to the Center for Plain Language, we now know which government departments wrote cleanly and crisply in the past year—and which ones fell far short.
As reporter Lisa Rein describes the results in the Washington Post, those that did well included Homeland Security (I know; I can’t believe it either), the Social Security Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. But:
“The poor performers landing at the bottom of the 2014 Federal Plain Language Report Card were the Interior, State and Education departments. Interior and State didn’t submit writing samples, and their programs are anemic, the report said, while Education earned passing grades for writing and design but a “D” in compliance with the law.”
The Post story also provides the following example of muddy writing, this one coming from the U.S. Coast Guard:
The Coast Guard’s at sea: The opposite of plain writing.
Oy. Maybe I should send the Coast Guard a copy of one of many great writing books I’ve re-read over the years, The Craft of Clarity by Robert Knight.
See the Center’s complete report card here.
Always on the hunt for simplification and clarity in our little corner of the world, I just conducted a small experiment on an online “readability calculator,” using our own written copy from Arizona Attorney Magazine.
This website will give you all kinds of data about the writing of you or others. Just paste in a sample of the writing and it will tell you the grade level the piece might best “reach.”
Using content from the upcoming March issue of the magazine, I pasted in exemplars from a few lawyer-written articles. I was pleased to see they came in at the range of 10th grade through 12th grade. (No, you really don’t want your language to reach exactly the grade level most of your readers have achieved. Readers are busy, and a readability score of 19, based on the average years of schooling of an attorney, is simply a recipe for disaster and obfuscation. A modest 10-12 is just fine.)
And then I pasted in my own editor’s column from the same issue. That’s when I saw it yielded a readability score of 7.0. That is 7th grade.
Sounds about right.
The good news: Time-stressed readers will not be overly taxed by giving my column a quick read.
The bad news: It looks like I’ll never get into the Coast Guard.
Have a wonderful—and rigorously disentangled—weekend.