In 1970, Citibank set in motion a series of events that eventually gave birth to a movement dedicated to simple, clear writing. Now called the plain language movement, Citibank’s efforts resulted in legislatures across the country passing laws requiring documents like insurance policies and consumer contracts to be written simply.
The famous promissory note
Citibank had spent significant time in small claims court trying to collect on its promissory notes (the document you sign when borrowing money). It had also invested a lot of time training staff to answer customers’ questions about its complicated forms and contracts.
However, the request for a simpler promissory note first came from the marketing department. Citibank was aiming to be seen as a leader in consumer relations, and its marketers knew that simpler documents would be key in achieving that goal. And thus began the process of rewriting the promissory note in plain language. That note became an icon of the plain language movement.
You can delay enforcing any of your rights under this note without losing them.
No failure or delay on the part of the Bank in exercising, and no failure to file or otherwise enforce the Bank’s security interest in or with respect to any Collateral, shall operate as a waiver of any right or remedy hereunder or release any of the undersigned may be extended or waived by the Bank, any contract or other agreement evidencing or relating to any Obligation or any Collateral may be amended and any Collateral exchanged, surrendered or otherwise dealt with in accordance with any agreement relative thereto, all without affecting the liability of any of the undersigned.
Citibank is on record that it improved its image and saved consumer litigation costs by simplifying documents. And the wording of the new form has never been challenged in court.
A movement is born
Since Citibank’s (at the time) revolutionary change, numerous states passed statutes encouraging plain language, the SEC issued its landmark Plain English Handbook in 1998, the federal government passed the Plain Language in Government Communications Act in 2008, and President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, requiring the federal government to write documents in simple language.
With all this momentum decades ago, shouldn’t plain language now reign supreme? Sadly, that’s far from the case. As professional writers, we encounter jargon, legalese and overly complicated prose—in short, gobbledygook—everywhere. And we still find ourselves explaining to clients why writing should be as simple and clear as possible.
Why? Because conveying ideas with the greatest possible clarity is difficult. It requires an in-depth understanding of the subject matter AND writing skill. Rarely are those two attributes combined in one person.
How to write plain
Here a few tips you can implement today to make your writing simpler, and thus more effective:
- Resist the urge to sound formal
- Omit unnecessary detail
- Be concise: keep the average sentence length below 25 words
- In most sentences, put only one main thought
- Use mainly active voice
- Use concrete words, not abstractions
- Refer to people and companies by name. This is especially important for lawyers who use plaintiff, defendant, appellant, appellee, lessor and lessee instead of actual names (imagine if novels used protagonist and antagonist)
- Write in a familiar voice with familiar words (end not termination, hurry not expedite, explain not elucidate, use not utilize)
- Make everything you write speakable
- Avoid nominalizations – act, don’t take action; assume, don’t make assumptions; conclude, don’t draw conclusions
- Use headings and topic sentences to summarize the main idea of paragraphs
- Use lists and bullet points
Want to learn more?
Below are a few organizations dedicated to the art of plain language. Their websites are treasure troves of information.
The Center for Plain Language is a US-based nonprofit organization promoting the use of plain language in the public and private sectors. The organization hosts annual symposiums in Washington DC. The Center also gives ClearMark Awards to outstanding examples of clear communication, and WonderMark awards to examples of truly bad communication.
The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) is a group of federal employees from many different agencies and specialties who support the use of clear communication in government writing.
The Legal Writing Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving legal writing by providing a forum for discussion and scholarship about legal writing, analysis, and research. It promotes these activities through its publications, workshops, specialty conferences, and the national biennial conferences held in even-numbered years.
Clarity is a worldwide lawyers' group and interested lay people campaigning for the use of good, clear language by the legal profession.
Scribes, or The American Society of Writers on Legal Subjects, seeks to spread the growing scorn for legal writing that is turgid, obscure, and needlessly dull.
If you’d like more information on plain language and how to write clearly and simply, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 904-374-5733.