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Cracking the Bureaucratic Code : 2 Organizations Turn Gobbledygook Into Plain English

December 17, 1987|CAROLINE E. MAYER | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — As bureaucratese goes, the small print on the Department of Education student-loan form was pretty amazing:

"Should the maker of the obligation tender payments thereon to the undersigned subsequent to the filing of this application, it is hereby agreed that such moneys will be accepted for and the proceeds immediately transmitted to the U.S. Office of Education."

But when Georgetown's Document Design Center finished translating the federal doublespeak into plain English, the meaning became a lot clearer: "If I (the lender) receive any payments from the borrower named above after I have sent in this claim, I agree to send the money to the Department of Education after the Department has paid out my claim."

Employees at the Document Design Center are among a rare breed of readers who actually look forward to interpreting government and corporate gobbledygook--not necessarily for enjoyment, but rather for the challenge of turning it into plain English.

"We see ourselves as translators," said center director Janice C. Redish. "We serve as interpreters between people in the technical world and people who need that information but don't live in the technical world. . . . DDC's mission is to help make life better for companies and consumers by improving the quality of their paper work," she said.

The center is part of the American Institutes for Research, a 41-year-old Washington-based nonprofit organization. The institute, funded by government and corporate research grants, has done thousands of projects, ranging from evaluating bilingual education programs to developing tests for airlines to use in selecting pilots.

The center is one of two Washington-area organizations in the forefront of the plain-English movement. The other is Editorial Experts Inc., an Alexandria, Va., company that has grown from an at-home free-lance business into a $3-million-a-year company providing all sorts of editorial services to the government, local companies and trade associations.

Fast-Growing Industry

The two entities are part of a growing number of plain-English writers--a business that was unheard of 10 years ago. "The industry has nearly doubled since 1980," said William Stolgitis, executive director of the Society for Technical Communicators.

"The number of English majors coming into this field is considerable," he said. "Previously, technical writers consisted mostly of engineers and scientists doing their own writing. Now we find more schools and colleges having technical writing programs. Five years ago, 30 schools had degree-awarding programs; today, there are 80 colleges and universities with degree-awarding programs. What causes this is just the technical explosion, primarily in the area of computers."

Although officials of the two organizations declined to discuss what they charge for their work, the savings that come from writing documents in plain English can be significant. Southern California Gas Co., for instance, has estimated that its simplification of billing statements saves it $252,000 a year by reducing customer inquiries.

The document center grew out of a 1978 project done by the American Institutes for Research for the National Institute of Education, which was trying to find out why corporate and federal documents caused problems for literate people.

Through research, the center concluded that the problems stemmed not only from the wording of the documents but also from the way they were designed.

Since 1978, the center has grown to comprise one-fifth of the American Institutes for Research's work force of 250 employees and accounts for a similar share of its yearly $15 million revenue, Redish said.

Consumer Testing

One key tool used by the center to achieve its goal is consumer testing. For instance, in designing users' manuals for computers made by International Business Machines Corp. and Hewlett Packard Co., it brought several would-be users to its testing laboratory and watched them use the manual, page by page.

Similarly, for Bell Telephone Co. of Pennsylvania, the center tested the company's customers to determine how best to redesign the phone company's customer bills.

Bell decided it needed to go to an outside firm to help with the redesign "because we're too close to it," said Avery Robinson, Bell's division staff manager of customer service.

Among other things, the center changed the typeface on the bill from all capital letters to upper- and lower-case letters and tried to give the bill more "white space," to make it easier to read.

Editorial Experts provides many kinds of editorial and production services--from a five-hour proof-reading job to writing, editing and producing an entire report. One of its biggest tasks was producing the five-volume appendix to the report by the President's commission on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Among other things, a team of 13 writers and editors from the company had to summarize more than 12,000 pages of testimony quickly.

An even greater challenge lies ahead, as the company tries to bring plain English to the Army. Last summer, the company was awarded a three-year contract to help the Army consolidate its regulations, cutting them by one-third and rewriting the remaining ones.

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