Plain And Proud Of It

Blog Feature Plain Writing

Erin Pittman, Project Lead, Veterans Benefits Administration Plain Writing Project 

Who among us has never sat in a doctor’s office reading medical information and felt like taking a nap to recover from deciphering all that gobbledygook? (That’s a very official term for medical jargon.) Now imagine that you are a senior citizen signing up for Medicare or a veteran trying to get care after leaving active duty. If enrollment applications and instructions are written in unfamiliar terms, how can you make the best decision in a timely manner to get the care you need? The field of health care is research-driven and highly complex, yet it affects everyday people like you and me. Shouldn’t all consumers of health care — regardless of educational level — be able to understand their health care benefits and services?

In 1998, Uncle Sam said yes. President Clinton’s 1998 Presidential Memorandum later followed by the Plain Writing Act of 2010 mandated that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”  As government agencies work to transform existing content and create new information for consumers, they often require health communications expertise to ensure materials adhere to the law and best serve the people reading them.   

What Plain Language Looks Like

Enter The Bowen Group. When I tell people that I lead a plain language writing project with the Veterans Benefits Administration, I often hear, “Oh, you’re dumbing stuff down.” If “dumbing down” means strategically taking the long, wordy, confusing texts and writing them in a more straightforward manner, we don’t mind what people call it. Documents written in plain language include:

  • Logically organized content
  • Bullets, like I’m using right now (aren’t these easier to scan?)
  • Short, concise sentences that contain one idea
  • Shorter paragraphs written about one main idea
  • Words with fewer syllables
  • Common, everyday words
  • Active voice
  • Second person writing, or the use of “you”
Plain language allows readers to “find what they need, understand what they find and use what they find to meet their needs.” 

Making a Difference for Our Nation’s Veterans

Our plain language project with the VBA transforms complex information about veterans’ benefits in support of the overall mission to honor the service and sacrifice of veterans and their family members.  Our work here is critically important to the health and well-being of those who have served this country, because it can enable them to more efficiently access the services they need. Every descriptor and caveat we clarify, every confusing acronym we spell out and every never-ending paragraph we break up contributes to a more meaningful piece of information that every veteran can understand, retain and, if needed, act upon. 

When we write in plain language, we write with the health consumer — in this case, the veteran and their family member or caregiver — in mind. Our writers consider, “Would a veteran with no experience in this area understand what I just wrote?” or, “Did I just make it easier for veterans to digest this information and apply for it?” If we can answer “yes,” we have accomplished our goal. 

Through the initiation of this project, VBA has made a critical investment in the people it serves. By making it easier for veterans to understand the myriad of benefits available to them, we honor their service and keep our nation’s promise to care for them. It feels good to have a small part in this effort.

So, no, folks. Plain language is not “dumbing it down.” It’s totally clearing things up.