Center for Plain Language logoHere 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.

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.

The Craft of Clarity by Robert Knight book coverAlways 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.

Arizona Attorney Magazine February 2013 cover

Our February 2013 issue with Bob McWhirter’s pictorial feature on less-lawyerly writing.

This week, I was pleased to see the announcement of honorees recognized for their clear and plain writing. Here at Arizona Attorney Magazine, we enjoy good writing and like to publish articles on it whenever we can—as we did here. I hope you enjoy it too.

The Center for Plain Language (even the organization’s name is transparent) gives awards annually to the best (and worst) examples of, well, plain writing. Here is how they describe their mission:

“The Center for Plain Language is a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that wants government and business documents to be clear and understandable. We support those who use plain language, train those who should use plain language, and urge people to demand plain language in all the documents they receive, read, and use.”

You can read more about them here. (Lawyers, how can you not love an organization that states, “Plain language is a civil right”?!) But on this Change of Venue Friday, let me tell you about this week’s winners and “winners.” (You may be surprised—as I was—that no law firms made it into one of the categories.)

Center for Plain Language logo(All of the winners and their opposite are posted online, here and here, respectively.)

Their top winner captured the “Grand ClearMark Award” (that’s the good category). The best-in-show honoree is the March of Dimes, which published a brochure titled Thinking About Your Family Health History. Here’s what the Center’s judges said:

Center for Plain Language ClearMark Award logo“[T]he brochure is written and designed with its target audience, parents-to-be, in mind. The brochure is an excellent example of plain language with easy to understand medical terms, and a clear, concise, and appropriate writing style designed to appeal to the target audience. The brochure uses colors, font, white space, and graphics effectively to add to its clarity.”

Wouldn’t we all like our writing efforts to be described so glowingly?

Center for Plain Language march-of-dimes

Top winner of Center for Plain Language award: March of Dimes (first page of a multi-page brochure)

Meantime, what’s up at the other end of the spectrum (I know you all raced here first), in the category the Center calls the WonderMark Award? Before I reveal the “honoree,” I should let the Center explain why the award has the name it does:

“WonderMark Awards are given for the least usable documents. The sort of documents that make us shake our heads and say: ‘We wonder what they meant. We wonder what they were thinking.’”

Pretty funny folks.

Anyway, the bottom winner is Charles Schwab, for a New Yorker advertisement that, indeed, makes us shake our head.

Center for Plain Language Charles Schwab ad

Not their best effort? New Yorker ad by Charles Schwab

I must share the Center’s own description of why they “recognized” this ad:

“What made it a WonderMark Award recipient?

  • So hard to read and decipher, it’s hard to judge.
  • Contradictory and frankly intimidating to the reader.
  • Of the 768 words in this ad, 700 are legalese. That’s over 90%!
  • One WonderMark judge summarized: ‘Sigh … once again a financial institution that expects me to trust them with my money makes it impossible for me to know what they are going to do with my money.’”Center for Plain Language WonderMark Award logo

The website announcement unfortunately truncated that last quotation. In the press release I received, the quote continues, “My mattress is looking better and better all the time.”

Who writes their stuff? This is gold—gold, I tell you!

Follow them on Twitter here, and join their open group on Facebook here.

Enjoy your weekend, and keep on writing (well).