An eNewsletter Dedicated to Helping Businesspeople Write Smarter and Faster in Plain Language
How Would You Grade the Writing Produced by the Federal Government?
That’s a tough task. But the Center for Plain Language (CPL) does that every year and publishes their findings in the Federal Report Card. CPL is a non-profit organization that supports plain writing in the federal government as well as the corporate and non-profit worlds. It puts together a panel of judges that rate the quality of the writing produced by 23 Executive Branch agencies. This is a big deal, because if U.S. taxpayers cannot read and easily understand what these agencies are trying to communicate, then they are not doing their jobs. Here is a summary of the report, edited for space.
2018 Federal Report Card
To determine the writing grade for the agencies, we evaluated two high-profile webpages from each agency: the homepage and the most-visited webpage, identified through 12-month usage data or, absent that data, via public data. We also evaluated organizational compliance for each agency (which covers internal staffing, communication, and training). Our findings:
- C replaced B from last year as the average writing grade. (To see the one-page Report Card for all 23 Executive Branch agencies, click here.)
- Turnover spiked. Since 2015, 13 of the 23 agencies in our report have replaced people in both of the two required plain language positions.
- Turnover hurt internal staffing, communication and training. Of those 13 agencies where turnover spiked, nine declined in organizational compliance, including three that failed it. Conversely, of the 10 agencies that retained a plain language official, eight maintained or improved in organizational compliance.
- Organizational compliance, in turn, drove writing quality. Of the 11 agencies that dropped a grade in organizational compliance, 10 also saw their writing grade drop. Meanwhile, among the six agencies where writing grades have risen or stayed constant since 2015, all have retained a plain writing official and maintained or improved their organizational compliance. Staffing and training matter.
- Agencies forgot a plain language principle—focus on your audience. On too many homepages, self-promotional news crowded out tasks and information for users, while jargon and acronyms stayed entrenched (can anyone guess what NSOPW stands for?). Two exceptions earned A’s: homepages for the Small Business Administration and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.
- Top-scorers made vital tasks easier. Our judges lauded the Social Security Administration’s “My Account” page; Defense’s “TRICARE” page, which serves the 9.4 million people eligible for the military’s health plan; and USDA’s “Choose My Plate,” which showcases selections from the five food groups.
David Lipscomb, who led this year’s Report Card team, said, “With so much turnover, agencies need to recommit to plain language, especially training programs. Then writing grades will jump back up.” Congressman Dave Loebsack (Iowa) added, “Here’s something all Americans can agree on—government webpages should be clear and easy to use. That’s why I’m troubled that so many agency webpages are still filled with jargon and acronyms and focused more on themselves than the everyday people who need government services, data, and help. We can do better.”
- 100% of all lottery winners gain weight.
- The most popular boat name is Obsession.
- 60 Minutes is the only TV show that has no theme song or music.
- 80% of women but only 55% of men wash their hands in the bathroom.
- Of the 12 stocks that made up the original Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1896, which is the only one still listed today: DuPont, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson?
(Answer at bottom of page)
Word of the Month
abrogate | AB-ruh-gayt | verb
1: to annul, evade, or treat as nonexistent
“Without consulting the HR Department, Keith tried to abrogate the new policy stating managers can no longer require employees to work overtime.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
A rhumba of rattlesnakes and a murder of crows? Click here to discover 48 more collective nouns of your favorite groups of animals.
Click here to read 25 of Oscar Wilde’s wittiest quotes.
American Express, Amgen, Cisco Systems, Department of the Navy, Fluor Corporation, General Electric, Motorola, The New York Public Library, Procter & Gamble, SEAL Team Six, State of Utah, Supreme Court of Virginia, United Way, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Food & Drug Administration
Writing Tips & More
Now that you’ve read the newsletter, go to the menu bar at the top of this page and check out the rest of our website. Click on Blog to see more writing tips, fun writing facts, and Words of the Week.
Subscribe to Writing Tips now!
SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Select the pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that expressed in the original pair.
STATUE : SCULPTOR
- fire : firefighter
- paint : painter
- medicine : doctor
- law : lawyer
- suit : tailor
(Answer at bottom of page)
The phrase three sheets to (or in) the wind means to be drunk. The word sheet in this phrase refers to a rope tied to a corner of a sail on a sailboat. The sheet is used to control the sail. To have a sheet loose in the wind is bad seamanship. To have three loose means you are not capable of controlling the boat. The phrase dates to at least 1821 when it appears in the following sentence from Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London published that same year: “Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.”
Answer: A statue is made by a sculptor; a suit is made by a tailor.
Fun Facts Answer
General Electric. The other 11 were: American Cotton Oil, American Sugar, American Tobacco, Chicago Gas, Distilling & Cattle Feeding, Laclede Gas, National Lead, North American, Tennessee Coal and Iron, U.S. Leather, and U.S. Rubber. At the time, these companies represented each sector of the market, thus the Dow Jones illustrated the overall performance of the market in the United States. After the recession created by the collapse of Philadelphia and Reading Railroads in 1893, these companies represented the stronghold of the nation.