At the annual gathering of county clerks, recorders, election officials, and treasurers, the closing keynote featured tips on how writing that everyone can understand can help officials do their work better, and save their budgets at the same time. Whitney Quesenbery’s presentation featured examples of improved materials from form letters to absentee ballot instructions.
One example came from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries and a letter to people requesting public records. Before a revision, 10% of their calls were questions about procedures. When they created new letters and accompanying fact sheets, the number of calls about these requests dropped from 10% to 1% They made three big changes:
- Wrote directly to the person, saying “you”
- Showed the steps in the process (and options) in a list, making it easy to scan
- Added a fact sheet with answers to the top questions
Making the case for plain language
If you are looking for clear evidence to support the claim that plain language works, you can’t go wrong with a new book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please by Joseph Kimble, an international expert on legal writing. It’s full of examples from real agencies, like these case studies:
- The Veterans Benefits Administration estimates that they saved $40,000 from rewriting just one letter into clear language. The number of calls relating to this letter dropped from 66% to 27%. Multiply that by thousands of letters, nationwide.
- The Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs revised their brochures, web pages and form letters. Calls went down from 5,000 a month to 3,500, time the staff could spend on other work.
- The IRS improved a form, resulting in a sharp increase in the number of people who could fill it in without errors – up to 55% from just 10%.
The book has over 50 case studies showing clear, measurable improvements and the value of plain language in reducing costs and increasing effectiveness.
Both Joe Kimble’s book and Whitney Quesenbery’s presentation at IACREOT make the point that plain language does not mean dumbing down information. Information can be:
- technically accurate
- legally accurate
- legally sufficient, and also
- clear and understandable
In a seminar to a federal advisory committee, Ginny Redish demonstrated the use of plain language in regulations and made the case that it is critical for standards.
Most importantly, the readers – citizens, taxpayers, voters, the general public – can tell the difference. In a head-to-head comparison of ballot instructions, researchers Ginny Redish and Dana Chisnell found that 82% preferred the plain language version. Their choice is clear!
More resources, and links from the presentation:
- Unum – How to File a Disabilty Claim, ClearMark award winner, 2012
- Medicare Summary Notice revisions: press release and before-and-after comparison (PDF)
- Minnesota Absentee Ballot instructions: article and presentation slides
- Definition of plain language from the Center for Plain language
- Redesign of the New York ballots
Thanks to IACREOT, the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials & Treasurers, including President Elizabeth Ensley Deiter, Shawnee Country (Kansas) Election Commissioner and Tony J. Sirvello III, Conference Chair for the opportunity to give this presentation.