The Environmental Protection Agency is using plain-language software tools to encourage staff to write in a clear style. One thousand employees are taking part in a pilot to train using Electronic Writing Course
and an online editor, called StyleWriter
, to help put plain language into practice in every document.
EPA, like most Federal Government agencies, has worked hard to improve its written communications. Most notably, EPA has published scores of new and revised regulations in the plain-language style, breaking out of traditional models by organizing material for the reader in question-and-answer format. The Agency uses personal pronouns, such as 'you' to address the reader, focuses on the active voice and pares down long sentences and paragraphs. But no matter how much effort the Agency puts in to plain language training, a major problem remains—how do you train 15,000 people and then make sure they put the training into practice. Software may be the key to guaranteeing the success of any plain-language initiative.
When the Plain Language Action Network organized a demonstration of plain English software, EPA decided to become the lead agency to test the software alternative to traditional training methods. EPA commissioned an Electronic Writing Course and bought a 1,000-user license to the StyleWriter editing package.
EPA's Use of the Electronic Writing Course
Learning to write the plain-language style would mean breaking the habits so often found in writing to bring out people’s natural communication skills. There are many ideas to learn—although most are common sense. People need to practice on relevant examples and learn from expert tuition. Usually, this means one-day or two-day training courses for a dozen people. This traditional training is time-consuming, expensive and cannot reach everyone. One estimate is that fewer than one public official in every 100 has had training in clear writing.
The Electronic Writing Course (click here for more on the Electronic Writing Course) that EPA has commissioned uses 200 writing documents from government agencies. Crucial in designing the Course was the work of Annetta Cheek and Laurie Ford at the Plain Language Action Network. This cooperation meant the designers could cover everything staff needed in plain language training. For example, there’s an important section on “How to Write Clear Regulations,” giving essential information for anyone drafting rules.
Tony Britten has been coordinating the plain-language software project at EPA. “After four years working with plain language, I was surprised by the many new ideas and techniques the Electronic Writing Course taught me. It's like sitting down one on one with a professional writer and getting instant feedback. That packs a lot of learning power into a short time. And the Writing Course is always right there at your desktop.”
EPA's Use of StyleWriter
Next, in order for staff to put into practice and refine and enhance the lessons they learned using the Electronic Writing Course, and to make those lessons an ongoing habit, EPA has also invested in the StyleWriter editing program. This sits in the toolbar of the word-processing program ready to help anyone edit the document into plain English. It highlights everything that detracts from clear writing. The program measures and highlights passive verbs, hidden verbs, complex words, wordy phrases, long sentences and many more style faults. It also highlights common slips of English, such as confused and misused words or hyphenation and word division errors.
One key way EPA uses StyleWriter is to set writing standards. For example, StyleWriter gives every document a clear style score. The best plain-language writing scores under 20. Publications such as Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post and Scientific American consistently score under 20. By contrast, a random sample of over 200 government documents showed the average style score was 90, with some scoring as high as 160 — eight times the recommended level. Only one in fifty government documents was in plain language.
Yet any document can be in plain language — without taking away content. Here's an example.
Every agency has a problem improving writing standards and adopting plain language. StyleWriter
can immediately show if writers are using plain language, where the specific faults lie and how they can break any bad writing habits they have. People who use StyleWriter
on their documents soon learn the skills needed to write well.
Tony Britten has high hopes for these computer programs to change the culture and help staff write to the highest standards. “The demand from staff to get on our pilot has been strong. The software will help anyone who wants to write well. It means we have now given staff the tools to write in plain language rather than just wishfully encouraging them to do so.”
How does StyleWriter Plain English software guarantee success?
To guarantee that everyone in an organization writes clearly, you need to change the communication culture, train staff and give them the tools to back up the training. This has proved impossible without software.
In the same way running a spelling checker on your word processor guarantees everyone writes without typing and spelling mistakes, plain English software can guarantee the benefits of clear writing. If necessary, organizations can immediately train all staff using our Electronic Writing Course (this provides staff with all the tips and techniques of top writers and editors; click here for details). Then, as a constant companion in every employee's word processor, StyleWriter backs up the training, continually showing each user how to edit his or her writing into a model of clear English; each employee runs StyleWriter through letters, memos and reports. And soon, drafting in plain English becomes the standard throughout the organization.
With large discounts for site licenses, StyleWriter is an affordable solution to a problem that costs your organization time and money. (Click here
for ordering information.)
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