Category Archives: Pros Writing in the News

Grades for content quality from federal agencies

Since 2010, the Center for Plain Language annually judges the quality of content produced by US government agencies. The results for 2017 are shown below.

I love these report cards for several reasons but chief among them is that they use an evidence-based approach. On a shoestring budget. Most complaints about content quality are vague. But the Center describes the methods used to evaluate quality. You can read the details in their white paper.

In the past, I’ve used their white papers to introduce the field of technical communication to college students. I encourage others to do the same. Thanks to the volunteers at the Center, who share their work with the world and keep our public servants accountable.

Feds make better grades in 2015

The Center for Plain Language recently released final grades for US federal agencies. After completing a rigorous evaluation process, they concluded that

  • Participation by agencies in the Center for Plain Language Federal Plain Language Report Card reached an all-time high: 23 agencies submitted materials for review, including all 15 Cabinet-level departments.
  • Compliance scores increased overall: Eight agencies improved while four others dropped. All 23 agencies fulfilled the requirements of the Act…though some are doing so better than others.
  • In Writing & Information Design, 13 agencies improved while the grades of only five dropped.
  • We saw no Ds or Fs in either Compliance or Writing & Information Design, and overall, a record number of agencies scored B or higher.

It’s nice to see some progress. Read more details in the Center’s white paper. You might thank the volunteers who keep our public servants accountable, too!

Which federal agencies made the grade?

The Center for Plain Language just released their 2014 Federal Plain Language Report Card. Highest grades went to Homeland Security, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Social Security Administration.

In their white paper, they note that the quality of writing within the US federal government is improving.

• 16 out of 22 departments improved over last year’s grades.

• In 2014, compliance with the Plain Writing Act increased. 19 departments fulfilled the requirements of the Plain Writing Act, earning A’s for Compliance, compared with only 12 in 2013. Only 3 Departments— Education, Interior, and State—failed to fulfill the requirements of the Act.

• Many agencies also improved their Writing and Information Design scores, demonstrating commitment to the spirit of the Act, as well.

Perhaps the best sign of changing culture within these federal agencies is that many now test their documents.

Social Security, HUD and several other departments reported that they evaluate comprehension by observing and interviewing readers while they read and use plain language content. Other departments, such as VA, used remote methods, including comprehension surveys, to evaluate the documents they submitted. Still others described evaluated success by statistically contrasting peoples’ likelihood to respond appropriately before and after communications were written in plain language.

When writing is treated as a genuine attempt to communicate, we all win. Thanks to those at the Center for Plain Language who do the research required to complete these report cards.

Why do people write like zombies at work?

My colleague, Burcu, sent me the link to this recent Forbes piece by Liz Ryan on why people writing things like as per my message and it has come to my attention. It’s a good read so I tweeted about it.

Zombie language, Ryan wrote, is incompatible with what her HR consulting company calls the Human Workplace.

Our language is our culture. Business language cements the culture in an organization.

Exactly. The way you talk to your colleagues and customers demonstrates whether you view them as autonomous beings or objects for your own purposes. Plain language is connected to organizational culture. It takes courage to write like a human being when you’re surrounded by zombies.


Are corporate values connected to plain language adoption?

I think so. At least this email from the lead writer at Pinterest to all company employees supports the connection. It is too good not to share. (See my series on what plain language is for background.)

Because of my current research on workplace writing quality, I’ve been thinking about how to capture the qualities of organizations who truly embrace quality writing — not just by their PR or marketing folks, but by all employees. I think we’ll be adapting the Competing Values Framework to do this. It’s the result of research by a group of folks at University of Michigan. I’ve used it to describe the purposes for which people write at work in our Revising Professional Writing workbook (RPW/3e) and for which managers interact with others in my textbook Thinking & Interacting Like a Leader.

Basically, organizations (or their leaders) are characterized in a matrix where one dimension displays flexibility vs. stability and the other dimension displays internal vs. external focus. You can see how to use these ideas in gauging the values of a leader by looking at the graph below, which represents the responses of six team members to the following questions:

(Q1) Rank order the following terms for describing your leader: __ Coordinator __ Producer __ Innovator __ Mentor
(Q2) Rank order the following terms for describing your leader’s style: __ Predictable __ Competitive __ Flexible __ Loyal

Overall this specific leader is more of a Coordinator, stable and internally focused. The labels used to describe organizations look like so:

  • Hierarchy (oriented toward control) = stable and internally focused where Coordinators feel at home
  • Market (oriented toward competition) = stable and externally focused where Producers fit in best
  • Adhocracy (oriented toward creation) = flexible and externally focused where Innovators reside comfortably
  • Clan (oriented toward collaboration) = flexible and internally focused where Mentors are most at home

So back to the point in this post. Which organizational culture is most likely to adopt plain language and truly value writing quality? I don’t know. But I’m gonna find out. . . (And I’ll bet the culture at the specific time of adoption is key, too.)

Related Research

Cameron & Quinn (2011). Diagnosing and changing organizational culture: Based on the competing values framework. John Wiley & Sons.

Campbell et al. (2003). Leader-member relations as a function of rapport management. Journal of Business Communication, 40(3), 170-194.

Rogers, P. S. (2000). CEO presentations in conjunction with earnings announcements extending the construct of organizational genre through competing values profiling and user-needs analysis. Management Communication Quarterly, 13(3), 426-485.

Quinn et al. (1991). A competing values framework for analyzing presentational communication in management contexts. Journal of Business Communication, 28(3), 213-232.

Looking for evidence that writing quality matters?

To Be Clear, SEC Reviewers Want Filings in Plain English, Period” from the Wall Street Journal will help you make your case. Let me highlight a few of their examples of SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) responses to the filing documents companies have submitted for review.

In case these documents are unfamiliar to you, here’s how Wikipedia describes them:

An SEC filing is a financial statement or other formal document submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Public companies, certain insiders, and broker-dealers are required to make regular SEC filings. Investors and financial professionals rely on these filings for information about companies they are evaluating for investment purposes. Many, but not all SEC filings are available online through the SEC’s EDGAR database.

Use the Wikipedia link to see the list of specific documents (and forms) companies deliver to the SEC for review.

The WSJ piece refers to content in specific SEC responses. Illustrative reading for anyone who wonders whether writing quality matters in the workplace, as well as why white collar workers write.  Here’s one example.

This one mentions problems with the quality of format (typesize) and informative prose development (definitions, descriptions, etc.).  Other letters mention quality problems with style (jargon) and punctuation (commas). Sadly, WSJ undermined the value of their information by publishing a follow-up piece describing the low quality of filing documents by testing them with readability formulas.

If the topic of financial communication interests you, there have been a couple of interesting-looking conferences in the past two years in the UK: see Corporate Financial Information Environment.  You can also keep a look out for an upcoming paper by Ron Dulek and me in which we analyze strategic ambiguity in several cases of corporate finance (see below).  Now back to the required revisions for that paper . . .

Related Research

Arnold et al. (2010).The effects of ambiguous information on initial and subsequent IPO return. Financial Management, Winter, pp. 1497-1519.

Brochet et al. (2012). Causes and consequences of linguistic complexity in non-U.S. firm conference calls. Harvard Business School Research Paper.

Dulek & Campbell (in press). On the dark side of strategic communication. Journal of Business Communication.

Eisenberg (1984). Ambiguity as strategy in organizational communication. Communication Monographs, 51(3), pp. 227-242.

Gao et al. (2008). Signaling corporate strategy in IPO communication: A study of biotechnology IPOs on the NASDAQ. Journal of Business Communication, 45(10, pp. 3-30.

Garrison et al. (2012). Designing evidence-based disclosures: A case study of financial privacy notices. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer, pp. 204-234.

Higgins & Bannister (1992). How corporate communication of strategy affects share price. Long Range Planning, 25(3), 27-35.

McLaren-Hankin (2008).’We expect to report on significant progress in our product pipeline in the coming year’: Hedging forward-looking statements in corporate press releases. Discourse Studies, 10(5), 635-654.

Richard Branson — pro writer

I already shared this on twitter but thought it was worth sharing here as well because I have a different set of followers here on Pros Write. Branson’s description of his process and what he does and does not delegate will help you understand a piece of what it means to be a pro writer.


What is the dullest, most vital skill you need to become a successful manager?

It’s the ability to write. I wholeheartedly agree with the author of this piece found on LinkedIn so I’m sharing it with Pros Write readers. Walter Chen uses three mega-successful business leaders to make his point.

  1. Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the venture capital company, Andreessen Horowitz;
  2. Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel;
  3. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

Here’s part of what Chen has to say about Bezos’ emphasis on writing skill:

Jeff Bezos values writing over talking to such an extreme that in Amazon senior executive meetings, “before any conversation or discussion begins, everyone sits for 30 minutes in total silence, carefully reading six-page printed memos.”

Certainly supports my Guideline #1 for coaching novice workplace writers.

The sorry state of language education

Please tell me you had a teacher talk about homophones at least once during your educational experience. This story from the Salt Lake Tribune a few days ago depresses me on many levels. In short, an English language teacher was fired for using the word, “homophonic.”  Like I’m watching a car crash . . . I haven’t been able to stop reading about it.

As John McIntyre wrote, “You can’t fix stupid. And you can’t make this stuff up.” There’s a thoughtful post from linguist Mark Leiberman at Language Log. Even Newsweek online ran the story. Which makes me feel good. I’d like to believe this level of knowledge about language isn’t widespread. (Even though I know differently.) Check out 35 Kinds of Hot, Sexy Homophone Action on Mental Floss for a few laughs. I found the cartoon on Gretchen McCulloch’s All Things Linguistic. She also wrote about this story for Slate‘s Lexicon Valley.

Just TRY to look away!

Learn to write like a secret agent!

Thanks to the folks at Bridging the Unbridgeable, I learned that the CIA style manual is now publicly available. As the Director of Intelligence wrote in the foreward to the 8th edition,

The information the CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.

I’ve included the manual here so you can investigate for yourself.

The Guardian published a tongue-in-cheek piece about the release of the CIA’s style manual a couple of days ago. It’s worth a minute.