Clear writing in plain language, compared with dull bureaucratese, is quicker to write, easier to read, and gets your message across better. That can mean serious savings of time and money.
For example, Ethos CRS estimated that productivity gains in Australian public sector agencies would total $33.4 million each year if they reduced the time it took to write documents by just 0.1 per cent.
These benefits are similar to those found elsewhere in the world. The British Behavioural Insights Team found that making a standard letter clearer for clients can produce a 10 per cent increase in response rates.
Within an organisation the benefits are naturally harder to estimate, because people are not charging out their time to each other directly. But in any workplace where people regularly write or read, edit and approve each other’s writing, there are big savings to be made from doing it better.
Not to mention the gain in job satisfaction when people can focus more on their real tasks because they’re not wasting time trying to understand a badly written memo.
But if the benefits are so obvious, why do we have to keep saying it? Plain language writing in government has been officially encouraged for decades – so why isn’t everyone doing it by now? Some organisations have clearly got the memo, but others still struggle.
We need to keep saying that plain language is good because there are countervailing forces – habits and attitudes that tend to nudge us back towards dull bureaucratese if we don’t face them squarely.
Chief among these is a conservative, risk-averse corporate culture. As a writer, if you’re always afraid that someone in the line of command above you might redline a phrase that they think is too casual, you will naturally steer back towards dull bureaucratese. It may not be pretty, but at least it’s safe.
Then there’s the mistaken belief that ‘plain language’ means dumbing down your content or being too casual or informal. Not at all. It means writing that’s clear, concise, careful and respectful – it respects your readers by not wasting their time. But it avoids unnecessary jargon, long words (where short words will do) and overcomplicated grammar.
What can we do to make the late adopters more comfortable with plain language? Bosses: you need to own change. Sending your people to a writing course is good and necessary – but it’s not enough. You need to approve and support the new writing habits that they bring back, ongoing. If you don’t, your people will quickly see that you’re not serious about it.
Writers: how can you promote a plain language writing style to bosses who may be more conservative than you are? What do you do with a boss who crosses out ‘now’ and inserts ‘at this point in time’ – the exact opposite of what they should be doing?
There’s no perfect answer to that – in a hierarchical organisation, at the end of the day you do have to keep the boss happy.
Maybe, as practical advice: pick your battles. If the boss is open to suggestion, point out the advice on plain language writing in the new Australian Government Style Manual. Otherwise, you may have to grit your teeth and let it pass. Focus on what’s most important: getting the overall length, content and structure of your document right to get the message across and answer the reader’s needs. Keep trying.