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Plain Language: The Bottom Line

Why should we use plain language? It saves us time and money. It saves our customers time and money. And it improves compliance with requirements we impose on the public. Here are some examples taken mostly from Professor Joe Kimble’s book Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please.

Plain language means fewer calls from customers

Calls Old letter Plain language letter
To each counselor per month 94 16
Total per year 1128 192

Source: Veterans Benefits form letter, Jackson MS office.

Plain language means it takes less time for users to solve a problem

In this study, users were asked several questions about FCC pleasure-boat radio requirements. The answers to the questions were in a regulation. Times are the average in minutes that it took to answer each question.

Type of user Old regulation Plain language regulation
Experienced 2.43 1.50
Inexperienced 3.51 1.73

Plain language means customers make fewer errors

  • Old form: 40%
  • Plain language form: 20%

Source: Canadian government form requesting free trees.

Plain language means higher compliance rates

  • Old form: 40%
  • Plain language form: 95%

Source: Required Canadian government certificate to register livestock.

Saving the government money is one of the best reasons to write in plain language

All the examples above would result in some government savings. But here’s two stories demonstrating savings more directly:

  1. The first plain language regulation was a FCC regulation on operating ham radios. Before FCC issued the regulation, there were five staff members answering public calls and letters with questions about the FCC’s requirements for operating ham radios. Several months after FCC issued the regulation, the questions had fallen off so far that all five staff members were moved to other jobs.

  2. Every several years the Veterans Benefits Administration writes a letter to all veterans asking them to update their listing of beneficiaries in VBA’s files. If a veteran dies without a valid beneficiary listed, VBA staff must locate and identify one. VBA was getting a response rate of about 43% to its letter. They rewrote the letter in plain language, and the response rate rose to 65%. This saved VBA about $4.4 million dollars in staff time.

Plain language helps improve the relationship between the government and citizens.

A project of the Revenue Office in Arizona demonstrates several types of savings:

In 2006, a team within the Arizona Department of Revenue started redoing about 400 form letters into plain language, working to simplify, organize, shorten and make sure that they say what they are supposed to say in a way that doesn’t require an accountant’s interpretation.

As of early 2008, the Department saw the following benefits:

The unclaimed property section received about 18,000 fewer phone calls in 2007 than the previous year after rewriting its letters. That has led to more time to do other work, and the division was able to process about 30,000 more claims.

Employees feel better about their jobs, because they aren’t answering the same questions over and over.

Surveys show customer satisfaction has gone up. A spokesperson for the office said, “We find we are getting a better response because they understand what they need to do. It has had a very positive impact on the relationship my team has with their clients.”