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Spotlighting Government Writing at Its Best—and Worst

Wanchai Orsuk/

Have you ever gotten an email and you don't have the faintest idea what the writer wants you to do?

Well now there's a place for that email to go. You can enter it in the Center for Plain Language’s annual WonderMark Awards, which calls out truly bad examples of communication.

While the Center for Plain Language's WonderMark Awards note the most confusing examples of writing in a document, website, sign or form; the ClearMark Awards honor the clearest language in a document, website, sign or form.

The deadline for ClearMark and WonderMark Award submissions is Jan. 31. You can find nomination and sponsor information on the center’s website.

Launched in 2010, the center's awards have made a difference -- especially in government agencies. According to Annetta L. Cheek, chair of the Center for Plain Language, the ClearMark awards have led to bonuses and other recognition for the government employees who created the documents.

"I see a gradual trend to better writing in government documents," says Cheek. "But this isn’t something that you can turn around overnight. It takes years to break old writing habits and to develop the skills to write in a style that’s easier to read than traditional bureaucratic language."

It helps that the federal government has to get on board because of the 2010 Plain Writing Act. The law requires all of the government’s public documents to be written in plain language.

The center annually reviews how well government agencies are complying with the Plain Writing Act and how well their documents are working. Agencies are graded on compliance and the annual Plain Writing Report Card is posted online.

Recipients of the ClearMark and WonderMark Awards will be announced at the Center for Plain Language Awards banquet on April 22 at the National Press Club.

So the next time you get an email or receive a letter that you don’t understand, don’t ignore it -- nominate it!

Jana Goldman is a member of the board of the Center for Plain Language and owner of Press Here, specializing in science communication.

The Center for Plain Language's Dr. Annetta Cheek joined the Excellence in Government Podcast to talk about the awards, plain language and federal language. Listen below.

(Top image via Wanchai Orsuk/

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