Zen And The Art Of Dumbing Down Your Prose

By Amy Miller

This is a blog post about blogging. Really, it’s about writing, and specifically about communicating better when you are an expert, or at least more of an expert than your audience. Often I am accused of dumbing down the copy of others who know more than I do.

So be it. If dumbing down makes a document more readable, then I am happy to be that person.

The Environmental Protection Agency is filled with technical people – lawyers, scientists, strategists and bureaucrats – who must write on a daily basis. Each group has words they use relentlessly that the rest of us don’t really understand. After 13 years here I still don’t catch all the meanings.

So I have come up with a list of words that are not to be used. They are insider jargon, or unnecessarily long words, or just plain ugly.

Here are a few words that the environmental people use a lot:

  • Stakeholder
  • Partnership
  • Remediation
  • Environmental justice
  • Brownfields
  • Best management practices
  • Integrated pest control

And here are some unnecessarily long or ugly words (and the short words that can replace them) that many people use a lot:

  • utilize – use
  • currently – now
  • possess – have
  • however – but
  • for the purpose of – for
  • Initiate – start
  • Terminate – end
  • Facilitate – help
  • Interface – meet? Talk to?
  • Relocate – move
  • Retain – keep

Acronyms, by the way, make ugly words look pretty. There are about a million of them, but only a few we should ever use — the ones that we know better as initials than spelled out. For instance, FBI, IBM, CBS and NASA.

In one summary of a legal case being brought by the EPA I found these acronyms: MMR, SDWA, STAPP, EPA, MANG, RCRA, NGB, AO2, RLALAT and OMMP .

I’m an EPA employee and I know only four of these.

By the way the federal government backs me up.

President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires federal agencies to use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” A subsequent executive order says that that regulations must be “accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.”

Knowing what an acronym or word means doesn’t make it a good read. Or, as my Haitian friends say, “Pal franse pa di lespri pou sa.” (Just because you speak French doesn’t mean you’re smart.)

About the author:  Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, seven chickens, two parakeets, dog and a great community.

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