Get Out of the Jargon Trap: Plain Language Training Can Help

Aug 15, 2014

I don’t know about your agency. But most agencies are going forward with plans to implement millennial asset paradigm shifts. It’s time that we became uber-efficient with our interactive modular matrix approaches. We need a more blue-sky approach to homogenized modular options and functional reciprocal concepts. Our exploratory research points to systemized logistical time-phases. I say unequivocally that it’s time to revamp and reboot our logistical innovation.

You’re either scratching your head over that first paragraph, trying to figure out what it means, or laughing out loud at how ridiculous it sounds, full of jargon, clichés, overly complicated words.

Not plain, clear language by any stretch.

I used an online “gobbledygook generator” to see what I’d get.

The results were so much like the writing I’ve encountered in my 10 years in the federal government I decided to use it to lead off the blog post.

The Plain Writing Act

Four years ago, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 into law, the first legislation in the federal government to require clear writing. The Act mandates that executive agencies (defined as executive departments, government corporations, and independent establishments) use clear, plain language in all their “covered” documents. Covered documents are any documents that:

  • are necessary for a citizen to receive any government benefit or service or to file taxes,
  • provide information about any government benefit or service, or
  • explain how to comply with any federal requirement.

Covered documents can be in any form—letters, publications, forms, notices, instructions—and can be paper or electronic. Regulations are not covered, though a Plain Regulations Act is pending.

Free PLAIN Training

The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) is the official federal working group designated to help agencies with plain language, including training. PLAIN offers free 3.5-hour classes in the principles of plain language and plain language for Web writing. We also offer 1-hour managers’ briefings that cover the responsibilities agencies have under the Act.

Right now, PLAIN has fewer than 20 instructors to handle all the governments’ training needs. Our trainers are all volunteer federal employees. Many are writers and editors, but our trainers come from a variety of backgrounds. Trainers take PLAIN training so they can teach at their agencies; we also ask them — if they can get permission from their supervisors — to go out to other agencies to teach plain language at least twice a year. So their home agencies, by supporting PLAIN volunteer trainers, also support the advance goal of better government writing.

Request free training at our site Agencies or departments within agencies can request two classes for as many as 30 to 35 people. We coordinate with our volunteers and connect them with the agencies to work out mutually convenient dates and times.

Training and Beyond

PLAIN helps agencies establish their own programs if they designate a person to be their in-house plain language trainer. PLAIN trains interested volunteers and potential agency program coordinators in a “bootcamp” each quarter, also free. Trainers-in-training must observe at least one regular class and co-teach at least once with a seasoned trainer after bootcamp. Once new trainers complete the program, we ask they teach at least two classes for PLAIN to help us with our training requests.

So think about that. Your agency can have free in-house training—we come to you. Or you can become a plain language trainer and begin training in your own agency or volunteering as part of the PLAIN corps.

If you are not quite ready to become a trainer but still are interested in learning more, you can find lots of resources, including the federal plain language guidelines, exercises, tips, tools, and links to the Plain Writing Act and the OMB guidance on it at

PLAIN volunteers have taught hundreds of classes at agencies across the federal government since the Plain Writing Act passed in 2010 (and before), reaching several thousand federal employees with the message that clear writing is vital to good government, to the public we serve, and for us as we work in our daily jobs.

Judging by the fun we’re having and the number of public servants who are making earnest efforts to write better, it’s working, but we still need more help. Think about throwing your hat in the ring and becoming a trainer. You’ll be part of a small group that’s making big change happen.Wendy Wagner-Smith is a senior writer-editor for the Office of Financial Research at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She has been teaching plain language at agencies across the federal government on behalf of PLAIN since November 2007. She currently serves as training coordinator helping the PLAIN co-chairs find volunteer trainers for plain language class requests. The views in this blog are her own and do not represent the views of her agency.