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Let Me Be Clear: Plain Writing Matters

“Clear, direct and easy to understand” may not be the first words most Americans associate with government publications and documents, but that is changing. Thanks to the Plain Writing Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, all federal agencies must now put their readers first when writing new documents or revising old ones.  That means before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, we must first think hard about how our language connects with customers and helps them get the most from USDA’s services and programs.

Secretary Vilsack has asked us at USDA to improve our writing to better serve the public.  He believes we cannot carry out our mission effectively if we cannot communicate clearly with those whom we serve. He has made plain writing a cornerstone of his efforts to transform USDA’s culture. Now all of us—even our lawyers—are making our writing easier for the public to read and understand.

This is good news for the American people whose lives are affected every day by USDA’s  leadership on issues from agriculture, to nutrition, trade, and energy. The public uses the information in our documents to build strong rural communities, to protect the environment, and to produce our safe and abundant food supply. 

The Farm Service Agency, for example, has written a new publication with plain writing in mind. “Your Guide to FSA Farm Loans” is a one-on-one tool for anyone interested in starting, expanding or owning a farm or ranch. It’s especially useful to small and beginning farmers.

Food safety is on the minds of most consumers. The Food Safety Inspection Service captures seasonal and other timely food safety information in 140-character call-to-action Twitter messages that help consumers prevent foodborne illness at home. The agency can alert more than 400,000 followers on Twitter as soon as there is a meat, poultry or egg product recall, or if a weather emergency threatens the safety of their food.

Because the clarity of our communications is vital to the nation’s well-being, we are training all employees who write or review public documents on the tools and techniques of plain writing.

But to improve our writing further, we need your help.  We ask that you visit our Plain Writing Web page and read our annual compliance report to learn more about what we are doing and let us know when any of our documents or website materials are unclear or difficult to understand.  You can write us at plainlanguage@osec.usda.gov.

USDA takes plain writing very seriously and our efforts are being recognized.

Last year, the Center for Plain Language, a non-profit devoted to advancing plain language, issued the first report card on efforts to comply with the Plain Writing Act.  USDA received the highest grades among federal agencies.

On April 16, I joined staff from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to receive two ClearMark Awards for plain writing.  These are the Oscars of plain writing!  We earned an original document award for APHIS’ Hungry Pests brochure and a Web award for USDA’s Introduction to Plain Language Course that is being used to help train employees.

We truly appreciate the awards.  The recognition is a terrific motivator to tackle the work ahead as we strive to communicate with you plainly, directly, and clearly.

5 Responses to “Let Me Be Clear: Plain Writing Matters”

  1. Lisa says:

    So why doesn’t this apply to Obamacare or the tax codes? Seems like this is a “do as I say but don’t as I do” kind of thing.

  2. Michael Fisher says:

    Amen! Making plain language happen will achieve real cultural transformation.

  3. Janet says:

    Plainglish, no doubt, is the best way to get your message understood.

  4. Della says:

    Not all professionals including educators have the skills for plain English! Perhaps you have to work at learning plain writing. You have to learn to listen to what you say as if you know nothing about the subject.

  5. Michelle Baker says:

    Congratulations! You deserve to be recognized for your achievements in this very difficult area. Thanks for the links as well. I hope USDA and other government writers will bookmark them.

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