Monday, November 10, 2014

Storytelling Plain and Simple

By: Aubrey McMahan, Internal Communications Specialist, U.S. Geological Survey, Office of Communications and Publishing 

This is not the first sentence I wrote when I sat down to write this blog post. For me, the beginning started with the bullet points below. Getting the “meat” of this post down on paper helped me form this introduction, which is exactly what Kathryn Sosbe from the U.S. Forest Service’s Office of Communications suggests when you’re struggling to write anything: you don’t always have to start at the beginning. With 30 years of writing/editing experience, Kathryn has helpful tips like this one for making writing easier; she shared a lot of these not-so-secret secrets, such as those below, with 71 other writer editors at the Federal Communicators Network October event Storytelling Plain and Simple.

Read. Then read some more - hard copies are best so you avoid the tendency to skim.
Write. And write and write - something -- anything -- that really requires your concentration and focus.

Be purposeful - read to discover what you like and don’t like. Write with a reason--what do you want the reader to take away from what you’ve written?
Be logical - organize your notes to fit your style. Organize your writing so it’s clear, interesting and reader-driven.
Be careful - consider how you address a topic. Proofread x2. If you’re editing others’ writing, kindly offer direct and specific advice, not criticisms or questions.

If you couldn’t hear from Kathryn in person, you can view a copy of her presentation here and, even if you did, make sure to check out her extra slides on effective email etiquette--these small changes could have a huge impact!

The FCN’s discussion about great writing would not have been complete without another great presentation on -- and practice of -- plain language. Writing that is purposeful and logically organized is of very little value if it doesn’t make sense to your audience. Even us federal employees who read and write for a living can agree with that:

Because a lot of the writing we do is to communicate to the American public what their tax dollars are paying for (or to inform them of Federal policy), we especially owe it to them that we provide clear and straightforward language they can understand and use. If this isn’t enough to persuade you to adopt a simpler writing style, how about it’s the law? The Plain Writing Act (2010) established that many new documents, whether on paper or electronically, which are related to Federal benefits, services, tax-filing, and compliance with Federal requirements, must be written in plain language. As the Plain Language Launcher for the General Services Administration and Co-Chair of the Plain Language Action and Information Network, Katherine Spivey had some useful advice on writing more simply, such as taking advantage of:

Familiar, everyday words - people shouldn’t need to consult a thesaurus or dictionary when they visit your website.
Short, simple sentences and paragraphs - aim for one subject and 20 words per sentence. Aim for one subject (or step) and 7 lines per paragraph.
Pronouns and active voice - if you’re addressing your readers, speak directly to them, using active voice’s clarity and directness.

Verbs in place of nouns - so you came to a conclusion? Then you concluded.
Headers, lists, tables, and bullets - these styles all make your information more simplistic and navigable for your audience.
Reader-driven organization - organize your writing to answer questions in the order your reader is likely to ask them.

Avoiding bureaucratese (unnecessarily complex and confusing writing :)) by applying these writing styles will help not only the public better understand the information we are trying to communicate out to them and any actions we require of them. It will also help us Federal communicators reduce questions, complaints, and the time and resources we spend on addressing them. What’s not appealing about that?

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