Would your mom understand? It’s one of the tips Energy Information Administration senior editor Colleen Blessing tells her colleagues to keep in mind when they write official agency documents. She emphasizes that clarity is a virtue, especially for federal agencies looking to maximize the reach of their publications.
Blessing has been with the EIA since its creation in 1977, working in budget, forecasting and analyst positions throughout her career. More recently, she has become a key figure at her agency for promoting plain language techniques. All that work paid off this spring, when the EIA won the 2013 ClearMark Award from the Center for Plain Language for its writing style guide, which outlines practices for crafting agency documents.
“People want rules, they want to know how to do it right,” Blessing says.
She believes editors at all agencies should adopt style guides to help eliminate common errors and promote good writing habits. At the EIA, the rollout of the writing guide included training classes and extensive advertisements in the agency’s newsletter.
One of the common writing pitfalls Blessing noticed was broad use of complex academic jargon. She said writers must adapt their language for their audience and aim for wording that is short and straightforward. Blessing touts the benefits of usability testing—showing draft documents to unaffiliated co-workers. If they don’t understand the purpose immediately, then it’s time to reshape some of the language, she says.
“There are steps you can take to being better,” Blessing says.